Capital Region saw jump in NIH funding
By: Diego Mendoza-Moyers
The Capital Region saw a significant jump in funding for biotech research last year from the National Institutes of Health — an increase that has allowed several local research projects to flourish into 2019, according to the Albany-based Center for Economic Growth, a regional economic development organization.
The NIH directed $62 million in funding to 20 institutions across an eight-county area that includes Columbia, Greene, Warren and Washington counties, as well as the metropolitan counties of Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga and Schenectady. The sum is the most the area has received from the NIH since 2013.
he University of Albany received $12.8 million, up from $7.4 million in 2017 and the university’s largest NIH award since 2004, according to the CEG.
One UAlbany project run by Melissa Tracy, an assistant professor of public health, received over $460,000 in funding to target ways of identifying and reducing domestic and familial violence.
“A lot of it has to do with all the stuff influencing your life. Biological determinants, behavioral determinants, social factors, social networks that influence violence exposure,” Tracy said. “What are the best interventions? Focusing on when kids are really young and what’s going on in their homes? Will that have the biggest impact?”
The project works by essentially simulating the population of New York City, and “modeling reality” by making decisions about whether sections of the population will do things like drink alcohol or get into a fight, Tracy said.
The model also allows Tracy and her team to demolish vacant buildings or change other factors to simulate how that may affect violence among the population.
“There’s a lot of frustration that we don’t know as much as we maybe should about how best to tackle some of these issues. There are certain aspects of violence that are really intractable,” Tracy said. “Focusing on family violence really spoke to that, even though we’re seeing a decline in robberies and other types of violence, domestic violence is not really changing.”
Tracy applied for the funding back in 2017, and spent this past fall largely collecting data and finding students to work with on the project. She said the lion’s share of the NIH funding will go toward paying students and research assistants for their work.
Other recipients of NIH funding include Symbiotica, a Schenectady-based research firm that received a $150,000 grant to develop a product that targets drug-resistant fungal infections.
Another research project being conducted at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy received over $800,000 in funding, and could ultimately change the way retirement homes and assisted living facilities are lighted to improve sleep and reduce metabolic diseases in some Alzheimer’s patients.
More than half of the Capital Region’s federal life sciences research and development funding comes from the National Institutes of Health — something Tracy says is crucial for the work of the region’s research institutions.
The funding “opens opportunities for students who want to have research opportunities but need to have some funding as part of that,” Tracy said.
And Tracy pointed out that, although NIH funding has become increasingly competitive to get in recent years, the uptick UAlbany saw last year is a good sign of the work being done.
“It just shows the quality of research that’s going on at this school,” she said.