Richard Larson, MD, PhD
Richard Larson, MD, PhD, is executive vice chancellor and vice chancellor for research at the UNM Health Sciences Center.
Credit: John Arnold

Scientific resources are hard to come by in the wide-open, empty spaces of the West, where most states share high rates of brain trauma, depression and suicide. Low population density and a shared medical frontier pose unique challenges for clinical care and research in those areas.

To meet those challenges, biomedical research must embrace a team approach, says Richard S. Larson, MD, PhD, Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center. 

That’s why UNM in 2009 led the formation of the newly formed Mountain West Research Consortium, which has the goal of building research capacity throughout the western United States.

“A single investigator can’t do everything that is needed on many research projects,” Larson says. “It’s important to be able to leverage our capacity and build resources.  Being part of a large network of universities allows us to do that.”

The idea of banding together as a consortium grew from a meeting in Albuquerque in 2009.  By the end of the meetings, attendees from universities in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming, had agreed to form a research consortium. Hawaii later joined the consortium.

The consortium benefited from the Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program, launched by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1999 in recognition that federal research funding has historically lagged in the Western states.

Today more than 20 research projects have benefitted from the program and more are in the pipeline. The consortium provides opportunities for collaboration and research training, as well as access to shared resources and services. Synergy has been achieved through joint pilot funding, VIVO networking, mini-sabbaticals, junior faculty mentoring and an undergraduate biomedical research pipeline program.

The very challenges the Mountain West researchers face sometimes reveal unique resources and opportunities. Montana, for instance, has a public health program with a national reputation for its work in Native American health concerns. Wyoming had developed a distance education model worthy of study, says Bill Shuttleworth, PhD, co-director of UNM’s Clinical and Translational Science Center (CTSC).

Researchers from across the region are now visiting Albuquerque, he says. “Just opening the door is often all that is needed to see real changes,” Shuttleworth says. “Many times what they need is funding for teaching release time.”

“They give a grand rounds lecture, which helps us understand their areas of study,” he adds. “At the same time, they’re meeting with successful researchers here who have been through the grant process and know what types of review their efforts will be up against.”

Pope Moseley, MD, chair of UNM’s Department of Internal Medicine, along with the CTSC bioinfomatics group, has been instrumental in expanding VIVO – a shared professional database that allows investigators to search for current member research interests. 

The consortium was recently awarded a $20.4 million NIH grant to further develop research ties. UNM's $5.3 million share of the grant will allow for the Health Sciences Center to serve as the regional biostatistics core and for additional visiting professors, new training programs and mini-sabbaticals by researchers.

“There is a lot of benefit for UNM in these collaborations,” Shuttleworth says “We have been able to expand faculty research into other states and other patient populations.”

"This is a tremendous achievement," Larson says. "I anticipate this will be a platform for further strengthening our relationships with other institutions in the region."