More than 200 people gathered at the Embassy Suites by Hilton San Antonio NW I-10 on Tuesday to learn how San Antonio’s key biomedical science institutions are spending the more than $1 billion they bring into the city annually, and how collaboration might bring in more money in the near future.
In a conversation moderated by Rivard Report Editor and Publisher Robert Rivard, leaders of the University of Texas at San Antonio, Southwest Research Institute, UT Health San Antonio, and the Texas Biomedical Research Institute told the story of how the four institutions – along with the UT Health Military Health Institute – came together to create a precision therapy collaborative that aims to highlight and build upon the already “world class” research that has been going on in the city for decades, but has been largely uncelebrated.
“San Antonio is often considered to be in fourth place among Texas cities as an innovator and leader in biosciences,” said UT Health San Antonio President Dr. William Henrich. “As I became more familiar with resources available across institutions in San Antonio, it became clear to me that this wasn’t earned. Our place should be loftier. So, we began to think about what could happen if we collaborated, brought new programs, and built new bridges.”
Out of these conversations, the precision therapy collaborative was born, and the group plans to build a free-standing operation focused on the science of precision medicine and its potential to impact medical diagnosis and treatment of individual patients by leveraging the strengths of each institution.
Precision medicine is an approach to patient care that allows doctors to select treatments that are most likely to help patients based on a genetic understanding of their disease. Precision therapeutics takes personalized medicine a step further and looks at the biology behind an individual diagnosis, the patient’s lifestyle, and environmental factors, and determines how to create and/or modify medications. The information gathered informs a new data set which can later be used to help people with similar genomes.
Henrich said the “heart” of the collaborative effort is best understood with a simple example:
“Most [people] are afflicted with seasonal allergies. If ten of us went to the store to buy [allergy medication], two to three of us would get complete relief, two to three would get moderate relief, and a couple would get no relief. We want to understand the biology behind those results,” Henrich said.
Historically, Texas BioMed CEO Larry Schlesinger said, looking into that answer might include one organization looking into the chemistry, then taking that work somewhere else to do the testing, and then a separate organization coming in and taking the project over to get it to the clinical trial phase.
“The real strength of this group is that, between us, we cover practically every aspect of what is required to take an idea to the marketplace to truly transform lives,” SwRI President and CEO Adam Hamilton said. “We are breaking down the barriers that have historically divided our organizations and are sharing resources, facilities, and expertise. But our goal is not to build an organization where we do research with and for each other, but to demonstrate how we can do research to attract bigger dollars” from outside organizations.
To get the collaborative research initiative off the ground, each organization invested $200,000 toward the first round of research projects, and have since received 12 research proposals that are currently being reviewed for potential funding. The main proposal requirement is that the research include at least two of the four participating institutions, Schlesinger said.
UTSA President Taylor Eighmy said that what makes San Antonio a prime location for precision medicine is the marriage between the population demographics and the “presence of giants” in biomedical research at all levels of discovery.
“There is only one Southwest Research Institute in the U.S. and it’s world class. There is only one Texas BioMed and it’s world class. There is only one UT Health San Antonio, and its body of work in cancer is world class,” Eighmy said. “And given our demography, we are able to do work for the future of the country because the [majority] demographics are changing, so we are primed to be successful.”
Keynote speaker Dr. Byron C. Hepburn, a retired Air Force major general and former BAMC commander who now serves as director of UT Health’s Military Medicine Institute, included the military community as a large local demographic contributing to San Antonio’s opportunity to be known for population-specific medical treatment.
“San Antonio is Military City, USA, but we are also Military Medicine, USA,” Byron said. “We are performing research daily across the city and region to advance trauma-related research,” which has proven to inform and improve care for both civilians and active duty military.
Henrich said UT Health San Antonio brings in $300 million annually in research dollars, UTSA brings in $83 million, Texas BioMed brings in $42 million, SwRI and its “tremendous amount of contracts” brings in $620 million, and the Brooke Army Medical Center’s surgical research center brings in $65 million.
“We have done a good job of hiding our light under a bushel,” Henrich said. “In order to compete at the highest level against the most rigorous places in the country for the most competitive awards, we have to have a superb team of people doing that work. If we make this collaborative work, we can lead San Antonio into a role as a leader in science. And that will only attract more experts and more money.”