Speaking this week at the University System of Georgia Board of Regents meeting, Azziz said he was surprised at the lack of infrastructure to compete for Clinical and Translational Science Awards from the National Institutes of Health.
"I would have expected a medical center and a health sciences university of the caliber of MCG to have a competitive infrastructure, absolutely," he said.
The NIH has a program to create up to 60 translational consortiums across the country, where the emphasis will be on converting basic research discoveries into treatments. MCG was awarded a $220,000 planning grant in 2006 to compete for one of the new grants, "and that in and of itself was a big coup for us because we were competing against the top-tier folks to get one of those," said Dr. Frank A. Treiber, vice president for research development at MCG.
The school then partnered with Medical University of South Carolina and the University of South Carolina to try to form a regional consortium to land one of the grants but the application was turned down. It was the first multi-institution, multistate application and the reviewers were "impressed" with the plans to attack health disparities and diseases prevalent in the South, such as diabetes and stroke, Treiber said.
It was not seen, however, as feasible, he said.
While working across those institutional and state lines, "Can you really do it?" Treiber asked.
MCG has been hurt in part by its lack of a general clinical research center to support clinical research, he said.
In a kind of Catch-22, the NIH has now made grants for those centers part of the translational grant program, so the grant MCG needs to get a translational grant is part of the grant it can't get without it, Treiber said.
"We're not competitive for it at all," Azziz said. "We're so not competitive that we actually partnered with MUSC. They allowed us to partner with them once. They failed to get the application. They threw us off the application -- literally, and they went ahead and got their own funding on their own."
MUSC, in collaboration with other schools and medical institutions in South Carolina, was awarded one of the translational grants last year, which will be nearly $19.9 million over the next five years.
"That is how, in many ways, less relevant we have become to the clinical, translational science (program)," Azziz said. "So we need to change."
That will be one of the objectives Azziz has when he takes over on July 1.
"To build translational research at MCG we will need to have facilities that will support translational research," Azziz said earlier this week in an interview with The Augusta Chronicle. "For example, a clinical research building is one way. The other is to engage community partners in taking the research that is being done on campus to the community to understand how truly our discoveries and our improvements are affecting health in the real world."
And despite the lack of success with the previous attempt, the school should continue to try to partner with other institutions on collaborative research, Azziz said.
MCG has been trying to counter the lack of an NIH translational grant by doing some of it on its own, Treiber said. MCG School of Medicine Dean D. Douglas Miller has developed a number of Discovery Institutes to pair basic researchers with clinicians in research areas on chronic diseases plaguing the South in order to foster more translational research, Treiber said.
"We're now starting to see a return on investment in that" in its second year, he said. The school hopes it will be able to apply again for a translational NIH grant in the fall, Treiber said.