The pioneers who toiled to create The Commonwealth Medical College (TCMC) forecast that the school would become a catalyst for economic development. This prediction is being fulfilled as the school has been awarded funding for scientific research.
Steven Scheinman, M.D., president and dean at TCMC, explains that since fiscal year 2009, TCMC has submitted 261 applications for funding with scientific research projects. A total of 59 of these were eventually funded, with TCMC receiving $13,333,604 in grant money.
“A large portion of this funding is subsequently being plowed back into the regional economy,” says Dr. Scheinman. “Some of these research projects focus on medical problems common to the regional population, such as Alzheimer’s and cancer.”
He emphasizes that an appreciation of scientific research is central to the future of every medical school student. These up-and-coming physicians must be taught to value new science, and to make evaluations of scientific discovery a lifelong process.
“Medicine is a scholarly profession and even if a physician never does research, they must be educated in an active environment because new science is always arriving,” says Dr. Scheinman.
Central to this process is an understanding that patient treatment is ever-changing as global scientific discovery unfolds faster and faster. Prospective physicians must be taught ways of evaluating, crediting or discrediting this new knowledge as it arrives in an almost cascading quantity.
He adds that funding sources within government don’t give out research money unless a strong case has been proven that the effort is worthwhile. In addition, the biggest expenditure within most research involves hiring highly trained personnel who receive good salaries well above median averages for northeastern Pennsylvania.
“We are proving that the present and future of TCMC involves the commercialization of discoveries, the acquisition of license fees, company jump starts for the private sector, and new jobs,” says Dr. Scheinman. “All of these directly benefit the regional economy.”
Federal dollars to TCMC
A high-visibility, three-year research grant totaling $945,142 awarded to TCMC by the Department of Defense. Researchers will study a troubling and mysterious urinary disorder called Interstitial Cystitis (IC). The grant provides investigators funding to develop a diagnostic test for IC. This condition, which afflicts four million Americans and may cause suffering for another eight million who are undiagnosed.
Patients diagnosed with interstitial cystitis normally experience recurring pelvic pain, pressure or discomfort in the bladder region and urinary frequency; some have to go to the bathroom 60 times a day, she said.
But its symptoms, most notably painful urination, can be associated with other conditions, making the disease difficult to diagnose, Dr. Planey said. Current tests identify fewer than 75 percent of patients with the disease.
Typically, the process of diagnosis can take five to seven years, and require expensive testing, which includes invasive procedures under general anesthesia.
Principal investigator, Sonia Lobo Planey, Ph.D., assistant professor of biochemistry will lead TCMC’s IC research. The project is dubbed, “Validation of APF as a Urinary Biomarker for Interstitial Cystitis.” Jun Ling, Ph.D., assistant professor of biochemistry at TCMC, is serving as research collaborator.
Dr. Planey says that 941 pre-applications for potential research projects were received by the Department of Defense. A total of 244 principal investigators were then invited to submit full applications, and only 55 were recommended for funding. “Our proposal was the only one of eight applications addressing this Congressionally directed topic area (IC) to be awarded funding,” says Dr. Planey.
The DoD decision to study IC was made even though incidences of the condition are not more prevalent in the military. However, for some unknown reason, Air Force women do experience a higher IC incidence than their peers in other branches of the armed forces.
Dr. Planey explains that her interest in creating a diagnostic tool for IC did not start with the condition. She was studying a particular organic molecule that was later found in patients with the condition, leading to extended research to prove that the presence of that biomarker in urine can confirm the existence of IC.
“In a way, we fell into the IC project as our own research moved along, because we were already studying the receptor,” says Dr. Planey. “As I learned more about IC and the terrible suffering it creates, it became obvious that a simple urine test to confirm the presence of the biomarker, and therefore IC, would be a tremendous breakthrough.”
Dr. Planey’s research into IC diagnosis could potentially be extended to other medical conditions, like chronic non-bacterial inflammation of the prostate gland.
Treatment options after a firm IC diagnosis currently include diet modification, botox, various creams, and behavior modification to provide symptom relief and improve the patient’s quality of life.
The IC research at TCMC involves testing urine samples. Dr. Planey is finding it difficult to find patients for the study, and is therefore casting a wider net to physicians as far away as Maryland to obtain the needed samples.
Meanwhile, the grant is allowing her to hire assistants and employ sophisticated instrumentation. She adds that targeted research should translate its findings into something practical that can be commercialized, as well as clinical trials that are specific and robust.
“All of this should lead to larger scale implementation and eventual application to the FDA,” says Dr. Planey.