Clinical Research Center creates a hub for clinical, translational and educational research at UNR Med

By Annie Flanzraich

For years, Evan Klass, M.D., treated and studied a family with two generations affected by hyperinsulinemic hypoglycemia, low blood glucose caused by excessive insulin.


A few months ago, he received a nighttime call from the emergency room. His original patient’s granddaughter presented with the same symptoms.


Previously, Dr. Klass collaborated with Adrian Vella, M.D., from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to complete a full genomic study of the original patient and his family. Now, there was a third generation to study. But, this time, they didn’t need to travel to Minnesota.


“Mayo came to us,” Klass said. The new University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine’s Clinical Research Center coordinated

the family’s testing. Dr. Vella came to Reno to obtain the specimens and gave a conference on familial hypoglycemia.


“It was a complex logistical problem made much simpler by having a team behind us at the school,” Klass said.

A nexus of learning and progress

The Clinical Research Center facilitated Klass’ study before its new space opened, illustrating its capabilities to transcend a physical location.


“It is a one-stop shop for people to get their clinical research questions off the ground,” Danielle Eaton said. Eaton was recently promoted to senior director and research manager for the center. “That’s what the center does. It’s the hub to network all the brains we have here.”


The center moved into its new, 1,500-square-foot space on Jan. 1. Located on the second floor of the Center for Molecular Medicine on the far north end of campus, the center includes two private outpatient rooms, two blood draw stations and a physician consultation area. The center will also have space in UNR Med’s building on Moana Lane, scheduled to open spring 2020.


A portion of a donor’s gift intended to grow clinical research helped fund the center, according Jeremy Alltop, UNR Med’s senior associate dean of administration and finance.


“We hope that it will support itself as it grows,” he said.


The center offers clinical research expertise and resources to biomedical researchers. Its staff has extensive knowledge of UNR Med’s research enterprise, funding and research opportunities. They guide good clinical practice, research ethics and protection of humans in research. The center can provide infrastructure, personnel support, relationships with hospitals, biostatistical and study design support.


“The clinical research center is the backbone,” said Klass, who is an endocrinologist and executive director of Project ECHO Nevada for UNR Med. “They’ve got the knowledge. They know who’s doing what in these different spheres. They can connect people. And, they can handle the regulatory piece, which is huge.”

Creating a hub for clinical research

When Eaton first started at UNR Med, she recognized that the school needed a place to carry out independent clinical, translational and educational research.


“I realized that more was missing for investigators to be able to do research,” Eaton said.


The Clinical Research Center can help researchers find biostatistical support, funding, partnerships and regulatory guidance.


“When I get stumped or need an issue dealt with, there’s a person I can go to,” Klass said. “So many times, you feel that the bureaucracy is working to derail you. Here, you have somebody whose whole purpose is to get you to the finish line.”

Elevating the UNR Med experience

UNR Med Dean, Thomas L. Schwenk, M.D. believes the new center will change the character of the institution. While UNR Med boasts a robust basic science platform and touts nationally-known basic science investigators, clinical research was missing.


“Our basic scientists want a partnership to connect what they’re doing to the clinical world,” he said. “We’re finally going to be able to offer that.”


Conducting clinical research is pivotal for Peter Jones, Ph.D., a UNR Med associate professor and the Mick Hitchcock, Ph.D Endowed Chair in Medical Biochemistry. Jones is piloting a study with the Clinical Research Center on facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy. He and his team moved to UNR Med from the University of Massachusetts Medical School after a nationwide search.


“I wanted to be somewhere where our lab work could go to clinic and we could actually make an impact,” Jones said. “UNR Med has been fantastic for us.”


That kind of environment is precisely what the center should foster, Schwenk said.


“People want to be part of a scholarly, rigorous, critical, analytical environment,” he said.


Besides attracting new faculty, the center also connects University faculty with UNR Med. For example, Amy Hughes Lansing, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology, plans to work with the center to research the intersection of mental and physical health in children.


“It is a launching pad for broader connections between both sides of campus,” she said.

Supporting research and dismantling barriers

By offering expertise and resources, the center can empower researchers, scientists and physicians.


Jones will conduct clinical studies to track FSHD’s progression at the center. FSHD is a genetic disorder that affects face, shoulder and upper arm muscles. Commonly adult-onset, it impacts about 870,000 people worldwide.


“The problem with working in rare diseases is typically all you can tell a patient is, ‘You have this disease, and there’s nothing we can do,’” Jones said. “Now, clinical trials are on the horizon.”


Jones and his team will track biomarkers of the disease’s progression in patients from around the mountain west. The research will monitor molecular biomarkers, genetic biomarkers and physical activity.


“We hope to provide important data and metrics for clinical trials around the world,” Jones said.


That study is one example of how the center can help basic scientists move into clinical or translational research, Schwenk said.


Hughes Lansing will use the center to test behavioral and family-based intervention models to help children with complex chronic illnesses. Her studies seek to understand a mechanism, such as emotion regulation in a family, that explains a health outcome or how a family manages health.


For faculty such as Jones and Hughes Lansing, the center can be transformative. “It allows faculty members who are busy and overstretched to start and follow through on clinical research,” Klass said.

Leveraging clinical research for learning

For learners at UNR Med, the clinical research center creates new opportunities.


“There’s a whole set of skills that are better taught as part of an environment in which clinical research is being conducted,” Schwenk said.


According to Eaton, among those skills are how to read clinical literature, how to understand the nature of the study, how to understand the types of patients who are studied and how to interpret the applicability of the research to other work. It also offers students a hub to launch their own ideas and research.


“The center will attract future residents,” Schwenk said.

Providing better access to patients

The center’s convenient location will have an immediate benefit to patients. It also gives faculty who work on lower campus, such as Hughes Lansing, a more accessible and appropriate research setting.


“Families who experience complex chronic illness issues are often medically fragile,” she said. “We can’t have kids who are immune suppressed coming into the psychology department building. It’s not an appropriate space.”


The center’s physical connection with UNR Med is also an advantage, she said. “There’s still a stigma against seeking psychological services. So, we don’t ask families to receive psychology services separate from the place where they would receive medical services.”


For Jones’ work, the center will serve as a hub for patients.


“Patients are willing to come from all over the country as long as we have the infrastructure,” Jones said.


Alltop says these studies will benefit patients in Reno and around the world. And the ongoing research will also raise the prestige of UNR Med in the eyes of other patients, says Schwenk.


“Patients want to know there is active research going on,” Schwenk said.

Research that reaches beyond UNR Med

The clinical research center can support research by anyone for a variety of different trials and different types of studies. That includes collaborating with the more than 1,000 UNR Med community faculty, northern Nevada hospitals and other partners.


“We’re a community-based medical school,” Eaton said. “The same way we resource from our community partners, they need to be able to know they can resource from us.”


For example, the center has a symbiotic relationship with the Skin Cancer Dermatology Institute and the Nevada Cancer Coalition. Eaton and the center for clinical research team will also collaborate with physicians at area hospitals.


“It’s important that it’s campus and community- wide because we can’t just serve ourselves,” Eaton said. “There are too many great ideas out there to just serve what we have here and too many collaborations to be had.”


For more information about the Clinical Research Center, please contact Danielle Eaton, senior director and research manager, at daniellee@med.unr.edu or (775) 784-4125.

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