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New survey shows Virginians value medical research, biotechnology fields

Read the full article in The Roanoke Times. 

Most Virginians think it’s important for the commonwealth to be at the forefront of medical and health research, but less than two thirds think the state is currently a leader, according to new survey results released Wednesday.

Virginia Tech and Research!America, a nonprofit medical and health research advocacy alliance, commissioned a survey of more than 1,000 Virginians about their perception of medical research in the state.

About 80% said it was important for Virginia to be a leader in education, agriculture and medical health research. But only 60% believe the state is currently a leader in those areas.

“The gap between how Virginians rate each of these sectors now versus what they want is quite high,” Research!America President Mary Woolley said. “And that should be a rallying cry.”

People who are serving the public’s interest in those areas, such as university leaders or politicians, can now make a strong case to their colleagues and citizens to further support health research, Woolley said. This could be through financial funding, but also through policies that better attract start-up companies.

Woolley will present the survey’s findings Wednesday at the Virginia Research and Innovation event at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. Leaders in the biotechnology fields from the institute, Carilion Clinic, Virginia Tech and others will come together to discuss the results and what it means for Roanoke’s future in the field.

The Roanoke and New River Valleys are following the lead of the state’s larger population centers to stake their claim in the biotechnology field. Earlier this year, biotechnology company Revivicor, located in the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, made news when its genetically modified pig became part of the first pig-to-human heart transplant surgery.
Other ongoing research at hospitals and universities, along with private companies like Revivicor, have led to important research springing up from the area.
Now, local leaders are angling to position Roanoke as the next big region for biotechnology start-up companies. Fralin Biomedical Research Institute executive director Michael Friedlander said Roanoke has a strong research focused university in Virginia Tech, a strong healthcare system in Carilion, a trained workforce, a great school system and an attractive living environment.
“I really think we have all the pieces here,” Friedlander said. “We’re still in the early stages, but I think Roanoke has an opportunity to be a real leader.”
On Thursday, Roanoke will also host the Virginia Biotechnology Associations’ statewide conference. Typically the conference has been held in larger metropolises, but leaders in the biotechnology fields will convene at the Hotel Roanoke to discuss the pandemic, workforce development and mentoring new startups.

Because this year’s biotechnology conference will be in Roanoke, Friedlander said there will be a stronger emphasis on the region’s ties to the state’s bioscience sector.

“This is a great opportunity to showcase a bit of what’s going on in this area,” Friedlander said. “And also to bring our story and the stories of others around the state together to try to create more opportunities for the biotech industry here in Southwest Virginia.”

He said it is slightly serendipitous that both the reveal of the survey’s results and the statewide biotechnology conference will occur in the same week, but bringing all of the state’s leaders together for both meetings should strengthen their impact.
Friedlander said the survey was gratifying overall to the institute’s mission and its efforts to push research in the medical field.The survey reported that 84% of Virginians across the political spectrum believe investing in research is important to the state’s economy and many believe it could help lead to solutions for the community’s biggest health care concerns.

Besides COVID-19, Virginians identified the cost of healthcare as the number one issue facing the country. They also identified mental health services and substance and opioid abuse as the second and third most important health issues. Half said they believed further research will be part of the solution — Friedlander counts himself among them.

He said the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute is working to develop new technologies and better diagnostics and medicine that could lower health care costs. He said scientists are also studying mental health and substance abuse disorder solutions.
“We can’t really be good at something and do good work if we don’t have the support of the public,” Friedlander said. “A large segment of our funding comes from the taxpayers, so I think it’s important to us to understand that the people who pay the bills find what we’re doing appropriate, important and necessary.”