MAKING THE FUTURE
Emory's research funding in 2019 reinforces a record of successful innovation and seeks to unlock the mysteries of the human condition.
On a perfect spring day in 1985, Craig Washington woke up with swollen lymph nodes. A good friend verbalized his deepest fears. "He told me I was experiencing the first sign of 'it.' I knew he meant AIDS, and I remember feeling this bolt of terror," Washington says.
It was the same year that Rock Hudson died, the first high-profile fatality from a disease that was then considered a death sentence.
Today, Washington is not only alive but says he's living his best life. The Atlanta resident credits much of his active lifestyle to drug treatments that have helped HIV/AIDS patients live longer and better: Treatments such as Emtricitabine, which was approved for use in 2003.
Emtricitabine was developed at Emory by chemistry professor Dennis Liotta, pediatrics professor Raymond Schinazi and then-researcher Woo-Baeg Choi; it is now used by 9 out of 10 HIV patients in the United States to treat their condition.
Additionally, Emtricitabine is increasingly being used for HIV prevention; currently, more than 130,000 people take it in a medicine for pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP. Not one to rest on his laurels, Liotta remains deeply invested in looking for new remedies for HIV including ones that are longer-acting.
Like Liotta and Schinazi, hundreds of research faculty and students at Emory are focused on solving the critical problems of our time and collaborating with peers around the globe to tease out the next potential blockbuster innovation.
Pediatric hematologist Wilbur Lam, a faculty member at Emory and Georgia Tech’s jointly run biomedical engineering department, has worked with a graduate student to develop a novel smartphone app to detect anemia. The non-invasive tool, which uses fingernail pictures to measure hemoglobin levels in the blood, will be released at the app store in the next few months.
At his lab, Lam, a recipient of several federal grants including a recent $5 million emerging investigator award, harnesses research across domains – math, medicine, biology, physics – to provide real world solutions for improving patient care.
Much of Liotta and Lam’s work is made possible by the sizeable investment in research from a variety of sources, most notably federal agencies.
In fiscal year 2019, more than half of Emory’s total $689.1 million in research funding came from the federal government, the university’s largest sponsor. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) remained the single-largest contributor, accounting for close to 85 percent of funds from the sector.
Sources of funding, FY 2019
"Emory is extremely proud to partner with the federal government. Federal funding is important not only for its size, but also for its breadth, encompassing such disparate fields as social sciences, the arts, as well as the physical sciences and medicine," says Deborah Bruner, senior vice president for research.
"Investments in research are investments in the future of our communities. Our institutional character rests on our ability to do good – and that's greatly enabled by research."
— Jonathan Lewin, executive vice president for health affairs, Emory University
Emory has also upped its commitment to discovery, increasing funding to $53 million; this includes infrastructure investments that enable researchers to be competitive. Emory seeded two new $5 million initiatives, each aimed at catalyzing and nurturing growth in research across domains.
"Emory’s scientific enterprise has been well funded by government agencies and foundations, but as university leaders, we wanted to emphasize Emory’s commitment to university-wide fundamental research partnerships and to support that commitment through institutional funding," says Jonathan S. Lewin, executive vice president for health affairs.
Research funding: Five year snapshot
Support from private entities and industry continued to be robust, contributing $157 million and demonstrating that academic work has real world impact.
Top 10 funding agencies, FY 2019
"Innovation and discovery are building blocks of the DNA of Emory," says David Stephens, vice president for research at Emory's Woodruff Health Sciences Center. "The strong collaborative research environment and the network of interdisciplinary research programs and cores link Emory schools and centers, and facilitate innovation and discovery across the campus and with key affiliates."
More than 2,800 research proposals were greenlighted this year – slightly more than last year – and indicate that the pipeline for new research at Emory is strong. Over the last five years, Emory's funding for research has increased by more than 20 percent.
"We are delighted that Emory’s research spans the breadth of our outstanding university and addresses many of society’s most pressing questions and challenges."
—Deborah W. Bruner, senior vice president for research, Emory University
So, why are these annual research funding totals important? Below is a snapshot of game-changing discoveries made possible through investments in research.
The gargantuan task of transforming countless fragile, sepia-toned papers into a digital repository that documents the transatlantic slave trade through a three-dimensional lens began several years ago at Emory. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database was redesigned this year and includes a host of new features and functionality; it now provides an updated and accurate calculation of the thousands of lives that began the involuntary, arduous journey to the new world, lives who helped reshape much of the Americas.
A new smartphone app helps people detect if they are anemic without requiring a single drop of blood. Anemia is a condition that causes more than half a million people to go to the emergency room in the United States and affects more than 1.5 billion people globally.
Using a virtual town among other experiments, researchers demonstrate that there are discrete systems in the brain that play specific roles in recognizing and navigating places. The findings can prove valuable for developing better brain rehabilitation methods as well as for advancing computer vision systems, such as those in "driverless" cars.
"If there were a Pulitzer Prize given for historical databases, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database would win it, hands down."
—Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard professor and Host of PBS's "Finding Your Roots." The digital archive, developed at Emory in collaboration with scholars from around the world, uses big data to reveal a more complete portrait of the slave trade which resulted in the largest forced migration in history.
Emory receives its largest single award, $180 million, to provide actionable intelligence for reducing child mortality around the world. The large infusion of funds – to an initiative that is already underway – will expand the project’s footprint and enable the development of more effective interventions. More than five million young children die annually, mostly of preventable diseases.
A foundation supports a vital initiative at Emory that trains students to be tomorrow’s leaders, by emphasizing skills in relationship-building, problem solving and critical thinking.
A multi-disciplinary team of physicians and basic scientists at Emory receives a first of its kind grant in Georgia to study new approaches to treating lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide.
Thirty some years ago, the life expectancy of those with HIV was around 18 months post-diagnosis. This meant that issues related to aging were never a focus. As people with HIV now live near-normal life spans, there is a growing need to understand how the condition impacts aging. Emory, which has been at the forefront of HIV research for decades and cares for more than 10,000 people with the disease at its clinics, was selected by the NIH as a center to study the impact of chronic conditions on populations with HIV.
Immunologist Max Cooper, the recipient of countless federal grants, is honored with a Lasker Award, popularly referred to as the American Nobel, for his contributions to our understanding of the human immune system. Cooper’s seminal discoveries have proven lifesaving, and his research has contributed to, among other breakthroughs, knowledge that enabled the use of bone marrow stem cells to treat blood cancers.
Ophthalmologists at Emory will use federal funds to investigate vision issues that can afflict a third of Ebola survivors, sometimes leading to blindness. The first patients with Ebola in the United States were successfully treated at Emory University hospital in 2014, and since that time, the institution has led research initiatives and treatment protocols for the deadly infection.