UTSA, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio showcase SALSI research

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(Oct. 8, 2010)--The San Antonio Life Sciences Institute (SALSI), a collaboration of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and UTSA, generated a 172-percent return on investment in its first five years, officials said yesterday at a meeting at UTSA.

SALSI has supported 48 collaborative research projects since 2004; these projects resulted in 119 new scholarly publications and 20 joint inventions. Additionally, SALSI has launched seven joint educational initiatives between the two UT institutions including master of science and Ph.D. degree programs in biomedical engineering.

Legislators mingled with researchers at the UTSA Main Campus and heard a progress report on SALSI, which is dubbed "The Collaborative Engine for South Texas' Knowledge-Based Economy." SALSI's goal is to develop synergies in research and education that would exceed the combined efforts of the institutions if each were acting alone.

To date, SALSI has helped researchers acquire an additional $8,264,825 in research funding beyond the $4,810,473 originally awarded. Moreover, UTSA and the UT Health Science Center expect soon to see additional returns on investment for 14 new projects that received SALSI funding this year.

Ongoing research targets glaucoma, prostate cancer, drug delivery, HIV, diabetes, aging, hearing loss and more. UTSA and UT Health Science Center researchers who team up to conduct SALSI-supported pilot projects are required to apply for extramural funding within 12 months of receiving SALSI grants.

Authorized by the 77th Legislature, SALSI funding has strengthened the biomedical and biotechnology industries in South Texas by developing a framework for research collaboration and graduate education between an educational institution and a health science center. Sen. Leticia Van de Putte and Rep. Robert Puente wrote the Senate and House legislation that authorized creation of SALSI in 2003.

Joo Ong, USAA Foundation Distinguished Professor and Department Chair at UTSA, spoke about the collaborative nature of the joint graduate program in biomedical engineering and its impact on student enrollment and research. Thirty master of science (M.S.) students and 41 Ph.D. students are in the biomedical engineering program. Eight students have received the M.S. degree and 12 the Ph.D. since the first degrees were awarded in December 2007. One graduate is working in government, 11 are in academia and five are working in industry. Three are in advanced programs, such as the M.D.-Ph.D. dual-degree program.

"The quality of our students is on a par with Duke University and UT Austin in STEM areas [science, technology, engineering and mathematics]," said Ong.

Amelie G. Ramirez, Dr.P.H., of the Health Science Center, discussed SALSI-funded health disparities research performed in conjunction with Zenong Yin, UTSA professor of health and kinesiology. Their combined teams are conducting a two-year obesity and diabetes prevention project in three preschools that teach primarily Mexican-American children.

Effective use of resources

A possible merger of UTSA and the Health Science Center was studied in 2002 and again this year. In May, a special advisory panel chaired by Peter T. Flawn, president emeritus of UT Austin and former president of UTSA, reported to the UT System Board of Regents that there was no compelling reason for, and no cost benefit from, merging the two institutions.

SALSI is a practical way the institutions can work together. "The blue-ribbon panel found that a merger would be expensive, but we already have a vehicle, SALSI, that should grow and develop," said Brian Herman, vice president for research at the Health Science Center. "It captures many of the benefits of a merger in a much more cost-efficient manner."

Robert Gracy, UTSA vice president for research, said, "SALSI starts with science but ends with commercialization and educating the next generation of scientists. SALSI dollars have been put into proof-of-concept funds to take inventions to the marketplace."

Gracy said SALSI is helping UTSA on its trek to Tier One research status. Herman said the institute is "playing a vital part in the movement of San Antonio from a service-based economy to a knowledge-based economy."

Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., chancellor of the UT System, said, "SALSI is the perfect example of inspiring and incentivizing collaboration. It allows faculty from both UTSA and the UT Health Science Center San Antonio to develop joint degrees and collaborative research."

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The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, one of the country's leading health sciences universities, ranks in the top 3 percent of all institutions worldwide receiving National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding. Research and other sponsored program activity totaled a record $259 million in fiscal year 2009. The university's schools of medicine, nursing, dentistry, health professions and graduate biomedical sciences have produced approximately 26,000 graduates. The $739 million operating budget supports eight campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. For more information on the many ways "We make lives better," visit the Health Science Center website.

The University of Texas at San Antonio is one of the fastest growing higher education institutions in Texas and one of nine academic universities and six health institutions in the UT System. As a multicultural institution, UTSA aims to be a national research university providing access to educational excellence and preparing citizen leaders for the global environment. UTSA serves more than 30,300 students in 65 bachelor's, 49 master's and 21 doctoral degree programs in the colleges of architecture, business, education and human development, engineering, honors, liberal and fine arts, public policy, sciences and graduate school. Founded in 1969, UTSA is an intellectual and creative resource center and a socioeconomic development catalyst for Texas and beyond.