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From the Desk: Vice president for research discusses IU’s 3 Grand Challenge initiatives

May 22, 2019

Indiana University’s three Grand Challenge initiatives are making a real and lasting difference in Indiana and beyond. What follows are a few of the important strides made by harnessing the combined forces of IU Grand Challenges teams and our partners in businesses, local and state government, other universities, and community organizations.

Precision Health Initiative

Pursuing the goal of getting the right treatment for the right patient at the right time, the Precision Health Initiative, led by Dr. Anantha Shekhar, is targeting five disease areas: Alzheimer’s disease; multiple myeloma, a blood cancer; pediatric sarcomas, which is a childhood cancer characterized by tumors in nerves, muscles or bones; Type 2 diabetes; and triple negative breast cancer.

Since 2016, Precision Health Initiative teams have worked tirelessly to achieve the initiative’s stated goals and with remarkable success, such as the creation of Precision Genomics Clinics in Indianapolis and in rural Indiana communities. This means, for the first time, Hoosiers no longer have to leave the state to access individually tailored treatments based on their DNA.

Working with IU Health, the Precision Health Initiative also brought the first CAR T-cell therapy to adult cancer patients in Indiana. IU Health is the only approved site in Indiana to administer these FDA-approved CAR T-cell therapies, which are widely considered to be a cure for certain types of leukemia and known for improved remission rates in certain lymphomas.

Looking ahead, Precision Health Initiative researchers are working to find cures for triple negative breast cancer, a particularly aggressive form of the disease that does not have a specific targeted treatment. They are helping patients such as Angie Steeno, who has been battling triple negative breast cancer since 2015.

“The initiative is important,” Steeno said. “To know that there is hope and that things are continuing to progress … I think it’s going to help people, empower them to fight harder and stronger.”

To inform their work, Precision Health Initiative team members are studying all the factors that affect health, including where you live, what you do, your family’s health history and more. The Person-to-Person Health Interview Study is collecting surveys and DNA samples from thousands of Indiana residents to better understand why one Hoosier develops a disease while another does not. As study leader Bernice Pescosolido recently told WFYI Public Radio regarding the survey, “We really need that interaction for the next phase of science, which looks at them as a whole person, not just the disease in the body in the bed.”

Prepared for Environmental Change

The Prepared for Environmental Change Grand Challenge initiative is focused on helping Hoosiers better prepare for the impact of large-scale environmental changes already being felt around our state and world, with the hope of creating replicable models to serve others in the future.

Led by Ellen Ketterson, Distinguished Professor of Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, this Grand Challenge team is working side-by-side with business, nonprofit and community leaders on projects to address a broad array of environmental concerns, including emissions regulations, implications of bird migration and survival for human health and crop yields, and urban water quality in Indianapolis.

The Prepared for Environmental Change initiative’s work is facilitated through the Environmental Resilience Institute founded in 2017. For example, the institute launched its online Environmental Resilience Institute Toolkit in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Change Adaptation Resource Center. The toolkit enables Indiana and surrounding states to compile information tailored to the unique environmental concerns of specific areas and make it publicly accessible.

Among other achievements, the Environmental Resilience Institute established the editorially independent Indiana Environmental Reporter. The institute provided support for hiring a journalist to cover environmental and energy issues in Indiana to enhance public understanding of what we and our communities can do in the face of environmental change.

In April, the institute also released findings from a survey which revealed that four out of five Indiana residents believe climate change is happening, and three out of four support efforts to address the impact of climate change. Overall, the survey offers key insights on public attitudes toward climate change as Indiana considers how it will respond to the environmental changes already being felt here and across the Midwest.

You can also read about the work of the Environmental Resilience Institute’s research fellows. This cohort of 11 of the nation’s brightest minds is applying their expertise in natural and social sciences, arts, history, business and law to better understand how farmers are approaching environmental threats, how the hair and bones and teeth from fossil animals can yield vital historical information that informs current predictions about climate and environmental changes, and much more.

Responding to the Addictions Crisis

IU’s most recent Grand Challenge, Responding to the Addictions Crisis, was launched in October 2017 by IU President Michael A. McRobbie, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and IU Health CEO and President Denis Murphy. Led by IU School of Nursing Dean and Distinguished Professor Robin Newhouse, this Grand Challenge is dedicated to reducing deaths from addiction, easing the burden of drug addiction on Hoosier communities, and improving health and economic outcomes.

Researchers associated with the Responding to the Addictions Crisis initiative are working broadly across the university and the state to leverage partnerships to fight the opioid crisis. Thirty-two research projects are already underway. Project leaders are working with partners to test school interventions, support addiction counselors in rural communities, search for more effective treatments, reduce stigma, help people fighting addiction stay in the workplace, examine policy obstacles and better understand the long-term consequences of addiction.

Our faculty are also partnering with more than 60 local agencies, service providers, state agencies, foundation partners and corporate partners. With support from the state, the IU Opioid Use Disorder ECHO – Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes – has engaged 512 health providers, including emergency department personnel, behavioral health specialists, prescribers and perinatal health care providers.

IU’s Responding to the Addictions Crisis initiative partnered on a recent initiative to provide training on how to administer naloxone and to distribute doses of the life-saving opioid overdose antidote drug. As part of this initiative, stakeholders were convened to discuss the harmful role of stigma in recovery and what can be done about it. These events were hosted with an array of partners including IU Health, Overdose Lifeline Inc., the Indiana Addiction Issues Coalition, Indianapolis Public Library, Indiana Family and Social Services, and the IU Center for Rural Engagement.

IU is also leading efforts to close the gap between the state’s need for medication-assisted addictions treatment and the available number of behavioral health professionals, which has been estimated at 7,000.

The IU School of Social Work at IUPUI is part of the Community Behavior Health Academy – a partnership led by Community Health Network to increase the number of people entering the workforce with dual licensure as a clinical social worker and a clinical addiction counselor. The first students will enter the program in the fall. Upon graduation, these students will represent a new wave of licensed social workers entering the community to treat thousands of patients. Lessons from the program will be openly shared with interested parties.

As we approach the three-year mark for the launch of IU’s Grand Challenges program, we are eager to share with you the impact each initiative is making, across our state and around the nation.

Fred H. Cate is vice president for research, Distinguished Professor and C. Ben Dutton Professor of Law at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law.

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