Funding validates GRA’s Eminent Scholar model

This week’s news that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded two Georgia universities major grants to advance work toward a universal flu vaccine is more than a testament to their sophisticated research programs. It also reflects how the Georgia Research Alliance’s efforts to recruit world-class scientists to Georgia can pay off in a big way.

On September 30, the University of Georgia and Emory University each announced it would play leadership roles in a nationwide effort to accelerate pursuit of the vaccine, considered the “Holy Grail” of influenza prevention. Combined, the NIH grants to the two institutions – made through its Collaborative Influenza Vaccine Innovation Centers (CIVICs) – could exceed $200 million in the years to come.

At the epicenter of the Georgia-based work are two GRA Eminent Scholars, Ted Ross at UGA and Rafi Ahmed at Emory.

GRA helped recruit Ross in 2015 to build and lead a new Center for Vaccines and Immunology (CVI) in Athens, which will serve as one of the nation’s three vaccine research centers leading the massive effort. The initial NIH award to UGA is $8 million and could grow up to $130 million.

At Emory, Ahmed will serve as co-principal investigator on a separate quest for a universal flu vaccine, a partnership with Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine. The two institutions may receive up to $132 million from NIH over seven years.

Back in 1996, GRA was instrumental in recruiting Ahmed, then a rising-star scientist at UCLA, to start the Emory Vaccine Center. At the time, GRA made a $10 million investment in infrastructure in addition to providing endowment funds for Ahmed’s Eminent Scholar chair. Today, the Emory Vaccine Center is the largest academic vaccine research center in the world; last year, it reached the milestone of $1 billion in outside research grants and contracts.

“The announcement that NIH has chosen to invest in Georgia’s scientists to advance work on such an important health issue speaks to the prestige of our universities,” said Gov. Brian Kemp. “It also shows how making smart, targeted investments in our universities through GRA can generate tremendous returns down the road, not only financially, but also in elevating the profile of our state.”

“While the size of these research grants is enormous, we’ve seen GRA generate big gains from relatively small investments again and again,” remarked David Ratcliffe, chair of GRA’s Board of Trustees. “All told, the Eminent Scholars and their teams make up only 5 percent of the research workforce at our universities — but they generate 25 percent of all research dollars going to those universities.”

Between 2005 and 2018, the Academy of GRA Eminent Scholars – which now has 72 members –attracted nearly $4.5 billion in research funding to their labs, according to a GRA analysis in March 2019.

When he agreed to relocate to Georgia from Florida, Eminent Scholar Ted Ross was in the midst of a seven-year, $10.4 million research effort to design, develop and test potential vaccines to fight influenza, Zika, HIV/AIDS and other viral diseases. He brought those funds with him to UGA in 2015, as well as the need to hire a team of research professionals.

Today, Ross’s center at UGA employs 65 people and has a research program totaling $18 million. Beyond NIH and other federal funding partners, the center has attracted investment from Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccine division of the multinational pharma Sanofi.

“The work being done by Dr. Ross and his colleagues may well yield a vaccine that can fight a number of influenza strains at once, for several years at a time,” said Jere W. Morehead, president of the University of Georgia. “So, beyond being the largest research grant in our history, this new NIH funding has the potential to move the needle in an area of science that affects everyone.”

The GRA Eminent Scholar program dates back to GRA’s earliest days as an organization. It establishes endowed chairs – with GRA funds matched by private sources – to signal a commitment to supporting the research of world-class scientists. In addition, GRA makes strategic investments in sophisticated lab technology and equipment to support the Eminent Scholars’ research and help make a move to Georgia more attractive. Notably, scientists at any university may use technology at all of the other universities through a collaborative called the GRA Core Exchange.

By expanding the research capacity of Georgia’s universities to attract more grants and make more discoveries, GRA enlarges the pipeline of bringing new products and treatment to market. GRA’s venture development program provides these startups seed investment and expertise in their early days, all to help them attract venture capital and become a successful business here in Georgia. • More: GRA.org