Clemson Division of Research

Oct. 2018: Who at Clemson will lead the next major research project?

Tanju Karanfil

When I met Hai Yao he was a junior faculty member with a big idea, and I was the associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Engineering and Science. That was 2014. Hai wanted to establish a Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) to revolutionize musculoskeletal health care.

The university already had a COBRE application to the National Institutes of Health, one that ultimately was funded; The Eukaryotic Pathogens Innovation Center led by Lesly Temesvari with Kerry Smith received $10.5 million in 2016. EPIC was another major project that took years of planning to come to fruition.

To his credit, Hai was not discouraged. He was determined. He continued to develop his COBRE proposal by advancing his research and building his project team, working with leadership in the Clemson University School of Health Research (CUSHR) and faculty from different departments, as well as his collaborators at Greenville Health System and the Medical University of South Carolina. We had initiated a new seed grant program (TIGER) in the college in 2014; Hai was one of the first recipients and used the funding to advance this project. The Research Division is providing a much broader version of a similar funding program to faculty now through our R-Initiative programs, which have resulted in more than $3 million invested to advance projects involving 161 faculty members in 36 departments representing each college.

Hai Yao, left, will lead an $11 million Center of Biomedical Research Excellence on musculoskeletal health.
Hai Yao, left, will lead an $11 million Center of Biomedical Research Excellence on musculoskeletal health.

Hai’s first proposal submitted to the National Institutes of Health in 2016 scored well but was not approved. He tried again in 2017. No award. Hai’s research continued to advance, and he maintained contact with NIH program officers about his desired COBRE.

In October 2017, Provost Jones and I accompanied Hai to Washington D.C. to meet with NIH to reaffirm our institutional commitment to Hai’s project. We had advanced our partnerships with GHS and MUSC and were committed to Hai’s COBRE. He submitted a third and final COBRE proposal in January 2018.

Last week, we celebrated the award of an $11 million COBRE for the S.C. Translational Research Improving Musculoskeletal Health (SC-TRIMH), led by Hai. Working closely with GHS and MUSC, Hai and his team propose to develop virtual clinical trials that aim to quicken the transfer of translational research to the bedside. You can learn more about his project here.

This is very exciting news for the university. COBREs have the potential to provide approximately $30 million in funding over 15 years, building research capacity by investing in both research infrastructure and junior investigators. In fact, Hai was a junior investigator on a COBRE project managed by MUSC years ago. Now, he is leading his own COBRE.

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Clemson now has three active COBRE projects: EPIC; SC-TRIMH; and the S.C.  South Carolina Bioengineering Center  of Regeneration and Formation of Tissues (SC-BioCRAFT), led by Naren Vyavahare.

First funded in 2009, SC-BioCRAFT has supported 23 faculty members and resulted in 16 awarded patents, the creation of four start-up companies, and the indirect funding of $35 million. This incredible productivity by Dr. Vyavahare and his team advances our institutional reputation for managing these large-scale NIH projects. SC-BioCRAFT will graduate to become a Phase III COBRE next year, pending NIH approval. That opens the door for Clemson to add another COBRE project.

So who will lead it? We will begin the selection of a new  COBRE proposal team in February 2019, with submission in the following year. This will take a significant investment in time, energy and resources, but institutionally, Clemson will back transformative ideas led by dedicated, hard-working principal investigators.

These large projects take considerable time to plan, and initial rejection happens. Hai proves that perseverance and passion pays off. There are other large funding programs offered by federal agencies, as well. I encourage you to begin planning early, as Hai did, and to reach out to me to discuss your ideas. Our Office of Research Development is also ready to assist in refining your proposal and putting your best foot forward.

During Board of Trustee meetings last week, I was proud to watch Hai speak so passionately of his research and to report many important achievements by Clemson faculty. We are proving that if we think big, we can do great things together.

Go Tigers!