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RIT, RGHS see wins together

A joint medical research effort of Rochester Institute of Technology and Rochester General Health System has scored some $5 million in new grants and is shepherding projects backed by more than $10 million in research grants.

RIT and RGHS kicked off the Rochester General Research Institute in February, recruiting University of Rochester Medical Center researcher Michael Pichichero M.D. to form the new institute.

It was established roughly one month after the university and the health system announced plans to collaborate on research, educational and health care initiatives.

The research institute is one of the ini-tiatives formed through the partnership. The rapidly expanding collaboration grew out of conversations between RIT president William Destler and RGHS president and CEO Mark Clement in 2008.

Both then were relatively new to their jobs and rather new to Rochester. Frequently thrown together on the circuit of charity, public service and other such events local community leaders find themselves on, Destler and Clement started to wonder what common interests the health system and university might have.

They found there were many and thought the institutions could go deeper. RGHS and RIT announced the partnership last December. The collaboration has exceeded their expectations, Clement said.

"You never know from the outside how something is going to work," he said. "But this partnership has gelled far more quickly than we imagined. The idea was to see what kind of synergies there might be to benefit the two institutions and the community."

The collaboration is overseen by a joint steering committee. In October, the committee, somewhat overwhelmed by the partnership’s mushrooming possibilities, appointed a full-time managing director: Cindee Gray, RIT vice president of government and community relations.

The committee also hired a consultant to help develop a long-term strategic plan. In the meantime, the partnership suffers from no want of projects.

In addition to the new research institute, whose staff includes RIT scientists as well as Rochester General physician researchers, the partnership is letting RIT expand its medical education programs, Assistant Provost Richard Doolittle said. 

While RIT is widely known as a center of photographic sciences and printing, Doolittle said, over two decades it quietly has built a medical education program that includes courses in physician assistancy, biomedical engineering, medical photography and medical technology.

While it does not train physicians, the school has a longstanding pre-med program, which graduates more than 100 students a year.

RIT, whose 13,000-student enrollment makes it the region’s largest institution of higher education, sees its medical education programs as a prime growth area. 

"We’re seeing a spike in interest," Doolittle said. "In a recessionary period, health care is one area where the jobs are."

The National Technical Institute for the Deaf also would benefit from the alliance, Doolittle added. NTID sees expanded opportunities to train deaf and hearing-impaired medical providers and researchers, he said. It also sees the partnership as a vehicle to explore ways in which the medical profession might better accommodate deaf and hearing-impaired patients.   

Growth head
Successful in its first year, Rochester General Research Institute sees more growth ahead, Pichichero said. The institute employs more than 30 people, including a team working directly under Pichichero, a nationally recognized expert in vaccine research.

Its funding sources include the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and several pharmaceutical companies.

Pichichero expects that his current effort to develop the first vaccine effective against childhood hearing loss will soon lead to one of the research institute’s first major achievements. The project is rapidly coming to a head, he said.

"We’ve already turned down one offer. We weren’t ready to make a deal yet, but I think we will be soon," said Pichichero, who as a URMC scientist helped found Praxis Biologics Inc., a locally based vaccine firm that once employed more than 200 at an 84,000-square-foot facility in Henrietta.

That his current research effort could bring new jobs to Rochester is not out of the question, Pichichero said.

Whether the project results in a new company or a licensing deal, the $5 million in grants the research center has scored so far is remarkable, he said. The rapid funding is due largely to the unique nature of research the institute is sponsoring, Pichichero said.

Projects under way
Another research institute project is being conducted by a joint team of RGHS medical researchers and RIT specialists in bioinformatics, a discipline that uses sophisticated statistical and mathematical modeling to analyze the growth and behavior of living organisms.

That team is doing work that could help hospitals control biological films, a leading cause of hospital-acquired infections.

Biofilm growth on intravenous tubes, which occurs when common skin bacteria move inside patients’ bodies via plastic IV tubes, is nearly unavoidable and is undetectable, Pichichero said. In addition to causing serious and sometimes fatal infections in patients, biofilms add some $1 billion a year to U.S. medical costs. A patentable biofilm preventer could bring millions to its inventor and save lives.

An RIT graduate program in clinical research trains professionals in the art of managing clinical trials for pharmaceuticals, a discipline that could dovetail with the research institute’s efforts.

RIT professor Heidi Miller is director of the school’s physician assistant program. The program has a long history with RGHS, having sent students to the hospital for training for 17 years, but ties between the school and the hospital have deepened significantly over the past year, she said.

Buoyed by the alliance, RIT has designed a five-year combination master’s and bachelor’s degree course in physician assistancy. The school is seeking state Department of Education certification for the five-year program and hopes to see it kicked off within the coming year, Miller said.

In the works as well is a graduate surgical residency program for physician assistants, which also may be set up within the coming year.

Assistant Provost Doolittle predicted that physician assistant graduate programs, which are relative rarities, will become more common in future years.

"We want to be in the forefront of that trend," he said.

In addition to overseeing the surgical residency program’s development, Rochester General chief of plastic surgery Ralph Pennino M.D. is working with RIT medical photography students. Pennino is an avid amateur photographer.

Besides standard photos of operations and pictures taken to illustrate medical conditions, the photography students have taken compelling shots of operating room situations that Pennino sees as standing on their own as works of art and as providing valuable documentation of operating room practices.

RIT’s expanded medical education programs chiefly will turn out non-physician medical professionals. The possible exception is the school’s biomedical sciences major, which sends graduates to medical schools, including at the UR, for training as physicians.

Noting staffing shortages are rife across medical provider categories, Pennino predicted the extra physician assistants, medical technicians and other non-physician medical professionals RIT will graduate would help allay the region’s perennial shortage of medical staff.

RGHS’ Clement concurred.

The alliance already is helping Rochester General in that respect, he said. Some percentage of students graduating from RIT’s medical education programs accept jobs and decide to settle in the area and thus would help to relieve future staff shortages.

Also not to be overlooked, Clement added, is the immediate relief students rotating through Rochester General’s departments already are bringing.

12/11/09 (c) 2009 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.


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