Much of the research conducted at the University of Kentucky focuses on addressing key health challenges facing the Commonwealth from cancer to substance use. Thanks to awards from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), those projects continue to advance health discoveries and power UK’s partnerships with Kentucky communities to improve health. 

On Monday, UK Research welcomed Monica Bertagnolli, MD, the NIH director, to the Healthy Kentucky Research Building (HKRB) — a space dedicated to enabling multidisciplinary teams to find solutions to reduce the health disparities greatly impacting Kentucky. With 100 principal investigators located at HKRB, a significant amount of UK’s NIH-funded biomedical research happens inside the building. 

“Kentucky’s demographic and geographic diversity present unique challenges to the health of its communities. Challenges that the University of Kentucky is addressing head-on with novel ideas to tackle cancer, substance use, diabetes, cardiovascular health and neurological health,” said Bertagnolli. “By focusing on these critical areas, UK is helping residents of the Bluegrass State live longer, healthier lives with discoveries that will ultimately benefit the health of all Americans.” 

Bertagnolli presented “Improving Health Through Biomedical Research: Guiding Principles and an Orientation to NIH” which was livestreamed and is available to view here.  

“We are grateful to the NIH and Director Bertagnolli for the continued support of biomedical research conducted at UK. It fuels our ability to improve the health of Kentuckians,” said Lisa Cassis, PhD, UK vice president for research. “It was a pleasure to share how UK is leading the nation in health disparity and community-based research.” 

In Fiscal Year 2023, of the $252.6 million in grants and contracts that came to UK from federal agencies, $145.6 million came from the NIH. Roughly 200 principal investigators were awarded 289 grants for NIH-funded research projects. 

A delegation from the NIH attended the visit with Director Bertagnolli including Joni Rutter, PhD, director of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS); Jon Lorsch, PhD, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS); and Kate Klimczack, associate director of NIH. 

Cassis gave the delegation an overview of UK’s biomedical Research Priority Areas (RPAs) — cancer, substance use, neuroscience, diabetes and obesity, and cardiovascular diseases. Created in 2018, the RPA program’s goal is to reduce the most pressing health disparities in Kentucky, which are particularly severe in the rural parts of the state.   

Central to much of this work is the UK Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS), funded by NCATS, to translate findings from UK researchers to prevention, therapies and treatments in Kentucky communities. CCTS Director Katherine Hartmann, MD, PhD, discussed UK’s translational approaches to reduce rural health disparities.   

Another round of discussions focused on programs supported by the NIGMS, including the SuRE Resource Center, Faculty ACCESS program and NIH REACH Program (KYNETIC). Research leaders shared their signature early-career training programs around specific research areas designated as Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE). UK has four current COBRE in Central Nervous System Metabolism, Cancer Metabolism, Pharmaceutical Research and Innovation and Obesity and Cardiovascular Diseases.   

Leaders from each of the biomedical RPAs presented highlights on research in their respective areas:  

Cancer: B. Mark Evers, MD, director of the UK Markey Cancer Center, gave an overview of the impact Markey has on Kentucky through research and treatment. Other members of the Markey team shared the variety of ways Markey is working for and with Kentuckians to ensure quality cancer care across the Commonwealth. Markey also leverages UK’s statewide network to make impactful change in lung cancer screening and is bringing precision medicine for cancer patients across the state. 

Substance use: Sharon Walsh, PhD, director of the UK Center on Drug and Alcohol Research, shared results from the NIH HEALing Communities Study in rural Kentucky. She and others on her team gave an overview of the work going on in the Substance Use Research Priority Area (SUPRA), in CARE2HOPE and KyOSKstudies, REFOCUS and the Racial Equity Initiative Coordinating Center, and integrated treatment of opioid use disorder and injection-related infections.     

Neuroscience: In aging and dementia research, Linda Van Eldik, PhD, director of the UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, facilitated discussion on the central role of inflammation in different forms of dementia. Van Eldik and her team shared the ways Sanders-Brown and the Neuroscience Research Priority Area support a broad spectrum of leading-edge dementia research and community outreach.  

Diabetes: The Barnstable Brown Diabetes Center works closely with the Diabetes and Obesity Research Priority Area. Center Director Simon Fisher, MD, PhD, and his research team shared the key partnership between these two organizations to advance diabetes prevention in Kentucky, including research on novel nutrition approaches and targeting circadian rhythms.  

Cardiovascular: Alan Daugherty, PhD, director of the Saha Cardiovascular Research Center, focused discussions on the Cardiovascular Advances in Research and Opportunities Legacy (CAROL) Act, the role of the center and the Cardiovascular Research Priority Area. Research team members shared contributions made to greatly advance myocardial and aortic research.