Area labs see uptick in NIH grant awards

State’s haul dips, but UF, UM, FAU, Scripps, Planck set records.

The Palm Beach Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Jeff Ostrowski Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Florida sci­en­tists landed less fed­eral re­search money in 2018 than in 2017, but sev­eral of the state’s most prom­i­nent uni­ver­si­ties and labs achieved record lev­els of fund­ing from the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health.

The $603 mil­lion won by Florida sci­en­tists dur­ing the fed­eral fis­cal year that ended Sept. 30 dipped from 2017’s record haul of $650 mil­lion. Still, 2018 marked the state’s sec­ond-best show­ing ever, ac­cord­ing to NIH data.

Florida’s three big­gest grant-get­ters set new records. The Uni­ver­sity of Florida brought in $176.7 mil­lion, the Uni­ver­sity of Mi­ami School of Medicine landed $133.3 mil­lion and Scripps Florida won nearly $50 mil­lion in NIH grants.

For Scripps Florida, the 2018 haul eclipsed the record of $42.5 mil­lion set in 2017. Re­searchers at the Jupiter non­profit landed a to­tal of 100 grants to study a va­ri­ety of dis­eases, in­clud­ing autism, cancer and HIV. They’re also ex­plor­ing new uses for stem cells, al­ter­na­tives to opioids and ways to make drug re­search faster and cheaper.

“It’s a very cre­ative and amaz­ing group of sci­en­tists we have here,” said Su­sana Va­lente, an HIV re­searcher at Scripps Florida who re­ceived $2.7 mil­lion in NIH grants in 2018. “It’s peo­ple who are re­ally on the top of their ca­reers right now.”

NIH awards are con­sid­ered the

gold stan­dard for sci­en­tific in­quiry, and they’re dif­fi­cult to win.

“Only top the 8 per­cent to 10 per­cent will be funded,” Va­lente said. “It’s very com­pet­i­tive. There’s a lot of peo­ple strug­gling to keep their labs afloat.”

Scripps Florida’s top re­cip­i­ent of grants for the year was Derek Duck­ett. He won $4.1 mil­lion in NIH grants.

UF, for its part, has made win­ning more NIH grants one of its goals. The uni­ver­sity three years ago hired 41 new re­searchers, said Dr. David Nel­son, a gas­troen­terol­o­gist and NIH-funded re­searcher who’s pres­i­dent of UF Health.

“The uni­ver­sity has re­ally made an enor­mous com­mit­ment to im­prove our re­search ca­pa­bil­i­ties,” Nel­son said.

The state’s big­gest loser was the Uni­ver­sity of South Florida, which saw its haul of NIH grants fall to $40 mil­lion in 2018, down from $113 mil­lion last year.

It wasn’t just UF, UM and Scripps Florida set­ting records. Max Planck Florida and Florida At­lantic Uni- ver­sity also reached new high-wa­ter marks.

FAU landed grants to­tal­ing $7.3 mil­lion in 2018, a 36 per­cent jump from its 2017 haul of $5.4 mil­lion.

And Max Planck Florida of Jupiter brought in $5.3 mil­lion in 2018, up 16 per­cent from its 2017 to­tal of $4.5 mil­lion. Max Planck Florida’s big­gest grant winner was neu­ro­sci­en­tist Hyung­bae Kwon. He had two grants, in­clud­ing an award for de­vel­op­ing a light tech­nique that lets sci­en­tists vi­su­al­ize and map how emo­tions af­fect neu­rons.

That grant, worth $6.8 mil­lion over five years, is the largest in Max Planck Florida’s eight-year his­tory.

The state and Palm Beach County re­cruited Max Planck, the renowned German in­sti­tute, to Jupiter with $188 mil­lion in sub­si­dies.

Bring­ing more NIH money into the state was one of the goals cited by then-Gov. Jeb Bush when he wooed Scripps with a $310 mil­lion state grant. Palm Beach County chipped in an ad­di­tional $269 mil­lion in sub­si­dies.

That deal, an­nounced in 2003, kicked off a bil­lion-dol­lar bet on biotech that Bush said would trans­form Florida’s no­to­ri­ously low-wage economy.

Re­sults have been mixed. The Burn­ham In­sti­tute, which re­ceived $311 mil­lion in state and lo­cal money to ex­pand to Or­lando, pulled out. VGTI Florida, a lab lured to Port St. Lu­cie with $120 mil­lion from the state and city, failed in 2015. And the Charles Stark Draper Lab­o­ra­tory, re­cruited to St. Peters­burg with $30 mil­lion in tax­payer money, has left the state.

Mean­while, the non­profit labs at­tracted by Bush’s sub­si­dies landed just a frac­tion of the over­all NIH grants com­ing into the state. Scripps Florida, Max Planck Florida and the Tor­rey Pines In­sti­tute in Port St. Lu­cie com­bined to bring in 9 per­cent of the state’s to­tal haul.

Nearly half of Florida’s NIH grants landed at state schools. The Uni­ver­sity of Florida won $176.7 mil­lion, the Uni­ver­sity of South Florida landed $40.4 mil­lion, Florida State Uni­ver­sity brought in $34.2 mil­lion and Florida In­ter­na­tional Uni­ver­sity re­ceived $23.1 mil­lion.

Pri­vate in­sti­tutes es­tab­lished long be­fore Bush lured The Scripps Re­search In­sti­tute to Palm Beach County also were ma­jor re­cip­i­ents of NIH money. They in­clude the Uni­ver­sity of Mi­ami School of Medicine ($133.3 mil­lion), the H. Lee Mof­fitt Cancer Cen­ter ($30.6 mil­lion) and Mayo Clinic Jack­sonville ($28.4 mil­lion).

Florida again ranked 12th among U.S. states in the amount of grants awarded, trail­ing biotech hubs Cal­i­for­nia ($4.2 bil­lion), Mas­sachusetts ($2.9 bil­lion), New York ($2.6 bil­lion) and Penn­syl­va­nia ($1.8 bil­lion) by a large mar­gin.

Ad­just for pop­u­la­tion, how­ever, and Florida falls to the back of the pack. While Mas­sachusetts brought in a na­tion-lead­ing $416 per res­i­dent in NIH grants in 2018, Florida’s $29 per per­son ranked 40th.

For med­i­cal re­searchers, NIH fund­ing is more im­por­tant than ever. Florida’s nascent biotech sec­tor has been ham­pered by the down­siz­ing of Big Pharma’s re­search spend­ing. What’s more, wealthy Palm Beach phi­lan­thropists — a key part of Bush’s plan — have proven re­luc­tant to open their check­books to in­sti­tutes work­ing on ex­per­i­ments that could be years or decades away from treat­ing dis­eases.

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