Delaware’s job future is in science

Steven J. Stanhope (Photo: University of Delaware)

If Delaware is known as the Diamond State, then perhaps its bioscience community should be considered a hidden gem particularly for its growing role in economic development.

The biomedical and biotechnology sectors have a niche in the First State, bolstered by the presence of innovative companies like Incyte, a reputation for excellence among Delaware’s hospital systems and an engaged academic community.

Eighty percent of the U.S. pharmaceuticals industry is headquartered in Delaware and the surrounding states. Average annual wages among Delaware’s bioscience workers reached more than $112,000 in 2012, among the highest in the nation, according to a 2014 report by Battelle and the Biotechnology Industry Organization. That same report found Delaware has a specialized concentration in research, testing, medical devices and equipment; and bioscience-related distribution.

One of the most visible signs of the bioscience impact here – as well as its future – is the University of Delaware’s Science, Technology and Advanced Research Campus. The Health Sciences Complex, which will open its commercial wing in the coming days, creates opportunities for collaborative research, student internships and a one-stop center for the public.

It’s no wonder UD has been classified as a research university by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, a designation awarded to less than 3 percent of degree-granting institutions in the US.

I may be biased, but I think the work done by the Delaware INBRE (IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence) program has contributed to some of Delaware’s success in developing sustainable and impactful research opportunities and preparing tomorrow’s workforce. This program, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health and the state of Delaware, helps expand research activities across basic, translational and clinical areas throughout the state.

INBRE also builds the academic and research pipeline in Delaware by creating undergraduate research opportunities along with education and mentorship for early and junior-level scientists. This Delaware-focused pipeline provides a talented, educated workforce, which is critical to growing our strong bioscience niche here in the state.

Last year, Delaware INBRE was awarded a five-year, $18.2 million grant from the NIH, along with a $5 million match from the state, to continue its collaborative efforts to increase biomedical research through its statewide network. It was the second renewal for the program.

Delaware INBRE is made up of six partner institutions: University of Delaware, Delaware State University, Delaware Technical Community College, Wesley College, Christiana Care Health System and Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children. It’s no surprise these are among the state’s leaders in advancing new ideas, educating rising scholars and improving the overall health of our community.

Funding for Delaware INBRE is administered by the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Science’s Institutional Development Award program, also known as IDeA. Delaware is among 23 states and Puerto Rico that benefit from the IDeA program, which aims to broaden the geographic distribution of NIH funding.

Since 2001, Delaware has received $155 million in total IDeA funding from the NIH. We’ve made great use of those resources; every $1 of IDeA funding invested in a Delaware INBRE investigator has resulted in $2 for later grant awards.

This focus on biomedical research also has helped add jobs here in Delaware. Funding from the IDeA program has directly created 1,684 jobs since 2001. It also led to $282 million in subsequent awards and an additional 3,050 jobs.

The result is a robust biomedical research community that is built upon a model of collaboration with the goal of increasing research opportunities, improving the health of the people of Delaware and increasing economic activity in the state.

So what does a sustainable biomedical research program look like in Delaware? For Delaware INBRE, it includes funding for early-career scientists to focus their work in one of three key areas: cancer, neuroscience and cardiovascular health. Those focus areas are intentional, considering Delaware’s population, which includes higher rates of cancer and chronic disease.

It also includes a push to expose more students to the world of biomedical research. More than 50 students in the Delaware INBRE Summer Scholar program just wrapped up 10 weeks of mentored undergraduate research. For many, it was their first opportunity to work in a lab, dive deeply into data or collaborate with a researcher.

In the past, this research has all been in an academic or healthcare setting; this year, however, one of our students, Sarah Wong, had the chance to work with Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics as part of a collaboration with the Inspiring Women in STEM organization.

Wong was the first student to participate in a Delaware INBRE initiative to connect female students with female mentors who are thriving in industry. There’s a good reason for this kind of networking – statistics from the National Science Foundation indicate men account for 71 percent of the science and engineering occupations.

Wong described her experience with mentor, Dara Morey, as invaluable. It also got her thinking about a post-college career in industry, something she hadn’t initially considered.

“It really gave me insight into the business aspect of working in research and development,” she said recently. “I have learned more than I ever imagined, been exposed to experiences that I could not get anywhere else. I had many networking opportunities and met many more people to support me in my journey.”

Successes like that are growing the research pipeline in Delaware. So are the connections formed with Delaware INBRE partner institutions, using funding, access to equipment and other resources to create a culture where collaborations are welcomed and research is valued.

A powerful example is the development of the Tissue Procurement Center at Christiana Care’s Graham Cancer Center, which has received funding from Delaware INBRE since 2003. This tissue bank – which includes normal and tumor tissues, along with blood samples – is one of only two non-university based programs in the country.

Researchers who have access to a repository like this can be part of translational research studies that combine basic science with potential therapies. It’s a valuable opportunity to broker collaborations between clinicians and academics to further build the research capacity in the state and lead to impact in the lives of Delawareans.

But the benefits aren’t just in the lab. A roundup of industry-sponsored clinical trial activity in Delaware in 2013 found that 133 active clinical trials resulted in a $23.6 million economic impact in the state. Clearly, research efforts ripple throughout the state’s economy. And that doesn’t include the many other trials and projects that take place daily across the state. Delawareans also can see the impact in their own health. For example, cancer mortality rates in Delaware have dropped twice as fast as the national average in the last 10 years.

Delaware INBRE also has played a pivotal role in helping to establish and support other NIH-funded programs in Delaware that further strengthen institutional biomedical research with a thematic, multi-disciplinary approach. There are seven such Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence, or COBREs, across the state and one Clinical and Translational Research program. Three of the COBREs and the Clinical and Translational Research program were awarded to Delaware INBRE partner institutions by the NIH in the last two years, despite an increasingly competitive national research arena. In total, all IDeA programs are on target to inject more than $200 million in research funding into Delaware’s economy.

In addition, the Delaware INBRE program helped lay the foundation for the Delaware Health Sciences Alliance, established in 2009. Founded with three INBRE partner institutions – UD, Christiana Care and Nemours – along with Thomas Jefferson University, the DHSA aims to collaborate and conduct biomedical research to boost access to care and improve the health of Delawareans, while educating the next generation of healthcare professionals.

The DHSA, along with Delaware INBRE partners, is expected to play an important role as the state rolls out its plan to use its $35 million grant from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation to improve patient care, support the health of all Delaware residents and reduce costs. This four-year grant marks a major step toward realizing the potential for Delaware to become a true “health science laboratory” for the nation.

A strong research community, one that collaborates, cultivates and fosters a strong network makes these kinds of goals possible. It also can help the Diamond State shine brightly as it reflects the success of bioscience in Delaware.

Steven J. Stanhope is director of the Delaware INBRE Program and Professor of Kinesiology and Applied Physiology at the University of Delaware.