Director's Message - May 2022

I pen this message with a heavy heart at a shocking time in our world - a time of war when principles of freedom and democracy are now directly and brazenly assaulted after years of neglect and gradual erosion. It feels like a dangerous time, unchartered territories, a turning point in our lifetimes. With this heightened awareness, our work must proceed with one eye on our academic mission and the second on our larger purpose in this world with aspirations to meld these toward common goals. As we strive to emerge from the yoke of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its exposure of endemic inequities and racism, we must ask ourselves why we are here, what is our purpose in this time and how can we help those that are suffering in war and oppression abroad and at home.      

At this time, I am also honored, on behalf of outstanding colleagues and all our partners, to update you on our progress and on the impact of the Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research at the medical center and Columbia University more broadly. In June 2021, Columbia’s Irving Institute was awarded its fourth consecutive Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA), receiving a perfect overall score from the review committee, and a five-year $61.7 million grant with funding through 2026.

The grant, awarded by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is one of the largest ever to CUIMC. It will support the work of the Irving Institute and strengthen our partnerships across Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC), NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital (NYP), New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University, as well as our community, regional and national collaborators. Standing on the shoulders of these wonderful institutions and building on our prior successes, we have launched innovative plans for the next five years to create novel scientific advances through multiple programs, trainings, multidisciplinary initiatives and more.

One current focus is on expansion of our interdisciplinary team approach across the medical center to grow and sustain our new Learning Health Systems (LHS) Initiative. Starting in 2020 we brought together diverse faculty and leaders with the goal of optimizing our health system's performance by enhancing the patient experience, improving population health, reducing costs, and improving the work life of health care providers. Our aim is to leverage CU and NYP resources and interdisciplinary partnerships to create sustainable processes, resources and training on rapid, rigorous design, evaluation and implementation of interventions using real-time informatics data and digital health tools. We held an inaugural symposium in December 2021 that focused on integrating informatics, research, and clinical practice programs to solve real-world problems in real-time. This spring we will award the Learning Health Systems Pilot Awards to collaborative teams in support of their LHS research ideas. The LHS pilot award program is a collaboration with the Irving Institute, CUIMC, ColumbiaDoctors and the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS). The program will support projects that apply a LHS approach that integrates informatics, research, and clinical practice programs to solve real-world problems at NYP/CUIMC.

In further pursuit of additional trans-disciplinary engagements across campus, we are collaborating with CUIMC partners and SEAS to advance Columbia’s Frontiers in Engineering and Medicine program. This initiative and related symposia offers opportunities for cross-disciplinary engagement through a series of ideation workshops focused on particular themes, such as Cancer, Biosensors, and Neuromodulation. Internal funding opportunities, including a suite of Irving Institute pilot programs offered via the Pilots and Collaborative Studies Resource (PCSR) with Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) and Columbia Engineering partners, amongst others, are provided to seed collaborative research projects and strengthen external grant applications. At each of these symposia we partner with departments across the Medical Center, Morningside, and Manhattanville campuses to organize and develop the programming, as well as provide insight into national funding mechanisms that these new collaborative teams can pursue. Ultimately, the Frontiers in Engineering and Medicine initiative and symposia provides opportunities to surface new ideas for what is achievable now, what may be possible, and also what is not yet conceived but can be revealed through shared creativity.

With continued commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), faculty and staff members of the Irving Institute convened a DEI Committee to focus on both internal advancements, as well as stewarding our Institute to advance health equity through program-wide efforts, to remove obstacles impacting healthcare, and clinical research. We aim to achieve this goal by examining our own policies and structures, building a diverse and inclusive workforce and workforce environment, and providing resources for health equity research. Increasing community participation and engagement throughout our processes and programs is critical for the success of our communities and translational research overall. At the same time, faculty and staff members of the Irving Institute are playing central roles in the CUIMC Task Force for Addressing Structural Racism and local Community Advisory Council, plus other DEI initiatives and programs across the university, and initiatives brought forth at the CTSA national program. Our internal DEI committee is working to ensure connectivity with these entities and the successful adaptation of applicable guidelines, tools, and best practices.

 The Irving Institute aims to continue to support and enable all phases of clinical and translational science to improve the health of individuals and the public. Our portfolio of services and programs span all stages of the research spectrum from basic research to public health, and cover six broad categories including research support services, core facilities, funding opportunities, community engagement, seminars and workshops, education and mentoring. We are grateful for the continued NIH-NCATS funding to help address critical needs in medical research. In labs across the nation, important scientific discoveries are made almost daily, but it can typically take a decade or more for a scientific discovery to result in precision medicine advances, or in a new drug, medical device, or diagnostic tool to be proven effective and implemented in the community. The Irving Institute serves as a vehicle to effect real change by breaking down clinical and translational barriers to improve the health and lives of many. I am honored to continue this legacy and to advance this translational purpose at a time of disruption and uncertainty in our nation and the world. Finally, I am delighted to welcome Dean Armstrong to our campus and New York City – we are excited for her tenure and embrace her energy and vision in her leadership role at Columbia.  I also want to thank and applaud Dr. Rustgi for his tireless, dynamic and impactful service as interim dean, and his safe stewardship of our medical center and communities through uniquely difficult times and disruptions over the past two years.

Muredach P. Reilly, MBBCh, MSCE
Director, Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research