Virginia Tech is putting a new kind of knowledge to work. Long considered a giant in the agricultural and engineering sciences and lauded as a 20th century pioneer in America's information technology revolution, Virginia Tech has been building capacity in human health and life sciences research for more than 25 years.

Now, Virginia Tech's steady rise in stature as a major contributor in life sciences research has been formally ordained with the creation of a new interdisciplinary research center known as the Institute for Biomedical and Public Health Sciences (IBPHS).

The new institute will lead in the development of cross-university research initiatives in the biomedical sciences, boost graduate education, and partner with an array of human health-related educational and governmental institutions on an ambitious quest to discover new ways to promote human health and well-being.

"The institute has been created to provide a catalyst for biomedical health researchers working in different departments and colleges at the university," said Mark McNamee, university provost and vice president for academic affairs. "In order to advance scientifically and remain competitive, we must inspire and support collaborative efforts that unite researchers from across our university and beyond its walls."

IBPHS is the second major collaborative research institute formed by Virginia Tech in the past year. The Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS) was created in 2002.

The new institute is designed to create a highly interactive and intellectual environment for scholars and scientists from different areas and promote their success by increasing opportunities to compete for major funding from agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, according to Janet Rankin, professor of human nutrition, foods and exercise, and the institute's interim director.

"This institute should build upon some of our current strengths and assist us in taking our research to a level where we are a major player in the biomedical and health research areas," Rankin said.

Rankin is directing the unit in concert with a stakeholder committee that consists of the deans of the four colleges that are principally involved with the new institute: Lay Nam Chang of the College of Science, Sharron Quisenberry of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Gerhardt Schurig, interim dean of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, and Greg Brown of the College of Natural Resources. The leadership team, working closely with a nucleus of faculty researchers serving on the Faculty Scientific Council, will oversee the development of all aspects of the institute, including the initial programmatic emphasis.

Some of the institute's key operating strategies are to encourage communication and collaboration among current faculty, provide support and coordination for multidisciplinary grants, and fund cluster-hires in collaboration with departments, Rankin said. She also said IBPHS will work closely with departments and colleges to insure that benefits are realized at all levels. IBPHS will also benefit from collaboration with external partners, including Wake Forest University, the Edward Via Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Carilion Biomedical Institute.

Initially, the institute will concentrate on two core areas: infectious diseases and immunology; and food, nutrition and health.

A variety of vaccine development programs are underway in the Center for Molecular Medicine and Infectious Diseases (CIMMID), where several researchers are developing a new generation of genetically modified vaccines to protect animals and people from infectious diseases ranging from brucellosis to tularemia. CIMMID is also where Schurig and colleagues developed the RB-51 brucellosis vaccine, now considered the global "gold standard" of control.

Sponsored research in the area of immunology and infectious diseases has tripled from slightly more than $2.3 million in 2000 to current funding of more than $7 million in 2003, according to Schurig. Increased federal funding for bioterrorism-related research in the post-Sept. 11 world has created fertile funding opportunities for increased work in this area, he said.

Similarly, the university has vast experience and faculty depth in the broad area of food, nutrition and health (FNH), according to Rankin. The overall goal of this program is to enhance human health through the consumption of improved foods and physical activity. Faculty at Virginia Tech are involved in the development of new genetic strains of crops and animals to improve disease resistance or other characteristics related to production.

One public health problem in need of a comprehensive scientific approach, obesity, affects more than 60 percent of the adult population in the United States and increases the risk of most chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, and some cancers, according to Rankin. Tech has significant resources to bring to bear upon these problems, Rankin said.

The institute may also look at programs designed to protect the nation from agro-terrorism. Possible approaches include work on the development of pathogen-resistant foods, improved processing, and surveillance systems for better tracking of infection outbreaks.

For now, IBPHS will occupy temporary facilities in the university's Corporate Research Center. But future plans call for the institute to become physically integrated with a major life sciences facility that will be constructed adjacent to the emerging Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and Litton-Reaves Hall.

Programmatic work is already underway at the research institute that is expected to play a major role in helping Virginia Tech attain its goal of becoming one of America's top-30 research universities.

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