The Rewards of Research

March 11, 2003

Heather Heilman

Research at the health sciences center underwent a b big growth spurt in 2002--a year that saw significant new investments in cancer research by the state, and a 45 percent increase from 2001 in competitive awards from the National Institutes of Health. Universitywide, Tulane researchers competed successfully for $45.6 million dollars in National Institutes of Health grants in 2002, a hefty chunk of the $111 million awarded to institutions in the state of Louisiana.

"We're doing exceptionally well, but our ambitions are to do even better," said Paul Whelton, senior vice president for health sciences. Of the three missions of the health sciences center--teaching, research and practice--research is the area where Tulane has the greatest capacity to grow substantially, according to Whelton.

"Research is fundamentally important because it provides the scientific underpinning for changes in clinical and public health practice. It also shapes the way people look at us as an academic institution," he said. "The institutions that are creating the most important and exciting new knowledge through research are the ones we think of as premier institutions."

The health sciences center at Tulane has been focusing special attention in five areas of strategic research important to the university--infectious diseases, chronic diseases, neuroscience, environmental health and gene therapy. But no matter what the field, excellence is a prerequisite, and growing the research enterprise means growing the faculty.

"Excellence and productivity in research starts with the faculty," Whelton said. "They're the ones who write the grants." Among the National Institutes of Health grants awarded to the university in 2002 were career development grants to the Hypertension and Renal Center of Excellence (established in 2002 with a large grant from the state board of regents) and the Tulane-Xavier National Center of Excellence in Women's Health.

These grants will help nurture the careers of young researchers, for whom the first two or three years of their careers are crucial--if an independent research program isn't established in that time, it may never happen. In order to make it happen, they need good mentors, protected time and a detailed career plan. Career development grants help in all three areas.

Although the health sciences center at Tulane has a smaller faculty than many of its peer institutions, it has special resources that many larger health sciences centers can't claima medical school and school of public health right next door to each other, four hospitals close by, an undergraduate campus 10 minutes away, and a primate research center.

Research collaborations with other institutions like Louisiana State University's medical school and Xavier's pharmacy college have benefited both partners. The Louisiana Gene Therapy Research Consortium, a collaboration between faculty at the Tulane and LSU health sciences centers in New Orleans and Shreveport, has been remarkably successful and has served as a model for several new collaborations.

Since its initiation in 2000 the Tulane Center for Gene Therapy has become a national leader in adult stem-cell research and has grown rapidly in size to having more than 150 faculty and staff. One of the year's big successes was the creation of the Louisiana Cancer Research Consortium, a joint endeavor with LSU that is being funded by a state tax on cigarette sales.

It is expected that the tax will generate approximately $12 million a year for support of research in cancer. One of the initial goals of the consortium is to compete for National Cancer Institute designation as a cancer center. Two new state-funded partnerships with LSU are on the way--a New Orleans Bio-Innovation Center and the Neurobiotechnology Program of Louisiana.

While the health sciences center is growing, it's important to grow carefully, said Whelton, who added that Tulane is well-positioned for further growth and recognition as a national resource for research in the health sciences.

Heather Heilman can be reached at

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000