Scholars at Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center achieved a significant milestone in 2021: more than $1 billion in research funding awarded from external organizations. Vanderbilt’s global leadership in research—from biomedical and biotechnology discoveries to vaccine development to groundbreaking advances in computer science, education and psychology—contributed to this landmark achievement, reflecting the university and medical center’s continued growth as leading research organizations.
“Vanderbilt researchers are among the most accomplished in the world, contributing in significant ways to solving the most complex scientific and medical challenges of today, while also charting important new pathways of discovery for tomorrow,” said Chancellor Daniel Diermeier. “Reaching this funding benchmark affirms Vanderbilt’s place among the world’s foremost research institutions and inspires new levels of aspiration as we look ahead to the future.”
Together in fiscal 2021, Vanderbilt and VUMC received more than 3,100 external awards totaling $1,090,386,890. Awards include those from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the Department of Education and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This milestone marks Vanderbilt’s world-class academic achievements and also positions us to make even more quantum leaps in research going forward,” said C. Cybele Raver, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. “I commend the powerhouse faculty, postdoctoral fellows and students whose ambition and hard work have gotten us here.”
Research funded during this year has supported numerous projects that already are benefiting society. Results include evidence-based improvements to classrooms and major roadways, positive momentum toward new drug targets for treating devastating diseases, changing national health guidelines and using advanced computational approaches to pursue new foundational knowledge about the human body.
“This unprecedented level of external research funding recognizes the extraordinary productivity, creativity and commitment of our scientists, their staff and our entire research community even in the middle of the worst pandemic in more than 100 years,” said Dr. Jeff Balser, president and chief executive officer of VUMC and dean of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “I am extremely proud of and grateful for what they have achieved—and continue to achieve—for the betterment of human health in the United States and throughout the world.”
These projects include:
- Dr. James Crowe, Ann Scott Carell Chair, director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center and a world-renowned expert in monoclonal antibodies, achieved global recognition during the pandemic for his work on developing human monoclonal antibodies to treat COVID-19. A grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funded Crowe’s efforts to develop a fully integrated pipeline for ultra-rapid discovery of pathogens, their protective antigens and development of fully human antibody therapeutics. Typically, pathogen discovery techniques span disciplines—from large-scale growth of live pathogens to rapid manufacture of antibody genes—that all require unique expertise and protocols. The Crowe lab’s potent human antibodies, with their rapid delivery within the body by an RNA nanoparticle mechanism, have potential to revolutionize how antiviral interventions are conducted, especially in outbreak emergencies like COVID-19.Crowe’s lab also worked on a universal influenza vaccine through research funded by the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases within the National Institute of Health. The multidisciplinary group working on this project will develop new virus structure-based models that run computational tests on neutralizing influenza. This work is connected to Crowe’s ambitious Ahead100 program, which aims to prevent future disease outbreaks from becoming pandemics by using monoclonal antibodies as the critical stopgap between diagnosis and vaccine readiness.
- Vanderbilt University Medical Center was selected by the National Institutes of Health to be the Data and Research Support Center for the Precision Medicine Initiative Cohort Program, a landmark study of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors affecting the health of a million or more people. The role of the center is to acquire and organize what will become an enormous and extraordinarily diverse dataset of precision medicine indicators and to provide research support and analysis tools to the scientists who will mine it.
- In collaboration with the Tennessee Department of Transportation, Dan Work, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, is building the smartest roadway in the world along a six-mile stretch of Interstate 24. “We want to measure how drivers and automated vehicles interact on the road, separately and together,” said Work, also a 2021 Chancellor Faculty Fellow. “This research will help make the world’s roadways smarter and safer, with the initial research conducted right here in Tennessee.” The project and its associated research are funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy, the Tennessee Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.
- Kathleen DelGiorno, assistant professor of cell and developmental biology, with collaborators at the Salk Institute, has discovered specific signaling molecules involved in tumor progression in pancreatic cancer, the third leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. This ongoing research can result in more precise drug targets to treat cancer. DelGiorno’s lab has been funded by the National Cancer Institute and Cumberland Pharmaceuticals.
- Jeffrey Spraggins, assistant professor in the department of cell and developmental biology and director of the Biomolecular Multimodal Imaging Center, and Richard Caprioli, Stanford Moore Chair in Biochemistry and director of the Mass Spectrometry Research Center, are participating in the Human BioMolecular Atlas Program to build a comprehensive, three-dimensional molecular atlas—akin to Google Earth—of the human body. “By working together in this multi-institutional, multidisciplinary environment, we can answer some of the biggest questions in medicine,” Spraggins said. “We have exposed one another to new technologies and ways of thinking, which is driving innovation and enabling this immense human mapping project.” An accurate visualization of how the human body’s trillions of cells interact, connect and arrange into tissues has multiple practical applications, from explaining details of tissues and organs to patients or students to enabling computational understanding of the differences between healthy and diseased cells and precision drug development. The research includes funding from the National Eye Institute.
- Lynn Fuchs, research professor of special education, and Amelia Malone, research associate in the department of special education, are implementing a five-year project that assesses the efficacy of interventions by general education teachers on improving mathematics outcomes for students with mathematics learning disabilities and for non-MLD classmates. The research is being conducted in fourth-grade classrooms across Tennessee and is funded by the Institute of Education Sciences. This is the first time that this kind of study is being conducted in a classroom setting, offering the researchers a chance to understand the true impact of interventions on all classmates.
- Dr. C. William Wester, professor of medicine, co-director of the Global Health Pathway (VUMC Internal Medicine Residency) and associate director of Global Health Faculty Development, received significant funding from the CDC to extend national, provincial, district and health facility programming to control the HIV epidemic in Mozambique. Wester and his colleagues developed strategic areas that support the sustainable implementation of HIV and tuberculosis services delivered by Mozambique’s Ministry of Health in Zambézia province. The Avante program, developed by Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Friends in Global Health, supports 144 health facilities that serve more than 305,000 patients who are receiving life-saving combination antiretroviral therapy.
“The pioneering and collaborative spirit of our expert investigators and multi-disciplinary teams have made this achievement possible. However, our most significant impact cannot be measured by levels of research funding. Rather, as a team, we have improved and lengthened the lives of people diagnosed with diseases worldwide through the discoveries made possible by this extramural support,” said Jennifer Pietenpol, Benjamin F. Byrd Jr. Professor of Oncology and VUMC chief scientific and strategy officer. “In addition, generous philanthropic gifts over many years have provided, and will continue to provide, the seed and transformative funding to launch many of the projects that are now funded by federal, foundation, pharmaceutical and biotech sources.”
“Vanderbilt continues its climb to new heights year after year, powered by the path-breaking research by our faculty and trainees,” said Padma Raghavan, Vice Provost for Research and Professor of Computer Science. “We are proud of reaching this milestone and eager to see the impact from these projects across the university and our medical center.”