A transformational step

New center aims to change health outcomes in SC and beyond

Christine Turley loved her time as a pediatrician in a rural community out West, taking care of patients, receiving immediate feedback from children whose pain she could ease. When she moved into academics and administration in a clinical setting, teaching the next generation of physicians, she could also see the impact of her work.

But when Turley spent more than a decade in Texas working to develop vaccines that now are used to protect millions of infants around the world, she began to fully understand the reach and scope of medical research.

“None of the children who receive those vaccines to prevent infection and who then remain well, will ever say ‘thank you’ to me,” Turley says. “I’ll never get gratification like I did in my office, sitting across from children I was going to help feel better. But I know that work has made this enormous impact worldwide in giving children and their families a better future.”

Turley has been a professor of pediatrics at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine since 2012, and has been the vice chair for research in the pediatrics department since 2013. She also has also served as chief medical officer for Health Sciences South Carolina.

This fall, she took over as director of the USC School of Medicine’s new Research Center for Transforming Health. She says she is excited to see what medical research can mean for a state like South Carolina, a state that suffers from a variety of ills from low birth-weight babies to high rates of heart disease, stroke and obesity.

The medical school’s new center is looking to change those health indicators — in a big way. The center will provide a hub that makes it easier for basic science researchers and clinical researchers to come together to work on projects that can improve the health of South Carolinians.

 “Health in our state is generally poor; we rank 42nd out of 50 for overall health status. Faculty are here at this medical school, in part, because they are so dedicated to the people we care for, and want to impact the diseases and issues that hold back good health,” Turley says. “There are many ways to improve health outcomes.  Given the overall health status of our state, we will need to think and work in new ways to see the progress we desire.  If we take only incremental steps we won’t be able to achieve the big changes and give people that live here and beyond, the best chance for optimal health and outcomes. The incremental steps, although they’re important, are not going to be enough to drive change.”

The idea for creating a research center to set that change in motion came out of a strategic planning session a year ago at the medical school. Turley says there was a strong sense of the need to break down barriers among departments and make it easier for researchers to connect.  Nationally, there has been an increasing focus on interdisciplinary teams in research, working together in new ways to take on tough challenges with new perspectives.  This approach is seen as an important opportunity for researchers and clinicians at Carolina to collaborate for these important challenges and problems.

The work starts with evaluating what research is already being done, determining the resources available and developing a vision for the themes of translational research that the university will emphasize. Educational activities for investigators will be developed to help researchers expand their knowledge; these could be as basic as tips for writing a bio sketch, or as detailed as how to build and manage budgets and reports, or investigator oriented writing workshops distributed over time to develop or enhance grant writing skills.

The center would become a hub for translational researchers, allowing them to reach across departments while providing collaborative forums. For example, if a researcher were interested in cardiovascular health, the center could provide resources or act as a bridge to bring together others looking at the same topic. The idea is to identify the work that is already being done, and then build on what is successful.

“Our research needs to make a difference in the way we practice medicine and deliver health care right here in South Carolina. We want to bridge the basic science research and the clinical research to move our efforts from the laboratory bench to the patient bedside,” says Les Hall, M.D., executive dean of the USC School of Medicine Columbia.

The desire clearly is there on the part of faculty and students to participate in groundbreaking research, Turley says. For example, 45 percent of last year’s first-year medical students applied for summer research positions in the School of Medicine.

“We needed to think about having a center within the medical school that would become a resource for people who are looking to partner with curious, talented colleagues to take their efforts to a transformative level,” Turley says. “This will be an opportunity to have an infrastructure that could enable life-changing types of work.

“This opportunity makes me so hopeful. Compared to many parts of the country, our state is 'research poor,' which is known to delay state of the art health care being delivered, and delay the health improvements that come from leading medicine in this way.  Being able to increase research capacity, and in doing so move health forward for the people in our state — I’m very optimistic about what we can do.”

So, what will success look like for the center? In five years, Turley says, the medical school hopes to have a strong footprint in three major thematic areas of translational research. That means there will be junior and senior investigators working on a topic area, along with opportunities for students and graduate students. She anticipates the research will be in cardiovascular health, neurosciences, and pediatrics, although other areas could include oncology, obesity, diabetes and a few more.  She also believed the center will contribute to the development of a pipeline of strong investigators in other translational areas, as researchers' understanding of health and disease, wellness and morbidity evolve and transform as more is learned through discoveries.

 “If we’re willing to work in some nontraditional ways, maybe we can have some nontraditional, accelerated results,” she says. “We have innovative individuals here who are thinking in progressive ways about how we study high priority problems in novel ways, to address health and health outcomes for all populations in South Carolina — young and old, people of all races — because that is how we transform health.  But that’s not easy.

“It’s hard to lead in medicine because it means pursuing things we don’t already know, it means realizing that there are gaps in our understanding, and being willing to do the research to fill in these gaps.  Without research, we’re following in what people have already discovered. Yes, implementing new knowledge and developing means to disseminate findings into practice is incredibly valuable, and these are areas of research themselves.  But in terms of leading the future of health, we have to ask questions for which we don’t already have the answers.  We have to challenge our assumptions, and seek out new solutions. This (center) sends a strong message about the values of our system and that we are committed to this idea of transforming health.”

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