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As 2021 comes to an end, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Joyce Tan and I want to reflect on progress of Initiative 4: Discover, the research framework for the University’s strategic plan Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good. Discover is one of eight initiatives representing core areas of focus and targeted investments by UNC.

Carolina Next is not a comprehensive list of university priorities. Rather, it is a document that evolves as new opportunities and challenges present themselves. The connection among Discover, Serve to Benefit Society (initiative 6) and Globalize (initiative 7) became abundantly clear as work during the year showed how Carolina’s research not only enhances the scholarly mission, but impacts innovation throughout North Carolina and the world beyond.

The Gillings School of Public Health and the School of Medicine’s Marsico Lung Institute collaborated this year to demonstrate how an oral antiviral drug for treatment of COVID-19 blocked virus transmission and reduced lung damage. The School of Medicine and the Institute for Global Health and Infectious Disease led a Phase 2 clinical trial of molnupravir and the results led industry partners Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics to seek emergency-use authorization.

The Rapidly Emerging Antiviral Drug Development Initiative, READDI, grew out of the Infectious Disease Drug Discovery Program Creativity Hub. READDI is developing a global partnership among academia, industry, and foundations to develop antiviral drugs against future emerging pandemics. The focus is to study the host cellular impact of antiviral families most likely to cause a pandemic by developing therapeutics that target the viruses themselves, as well as highly conserved host proteins needed for viral replication.

The Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center has developed a personalized immunotherapy program for therapies that modulate a cancer patient’s immune system. The patient’s immune cells are removed, manipulated in vitro, and then placed back into the patient to target and kill cancer cells. This treatment protocol requires a specialized Good Manufacturing Process facility, which Lineberger has constructed. Several active clinical trials are ongoing.

Research for service and policy is a key component of Discover. Jonas Monast in the Law School collaborated with the Institute for the Environment on a report based on a year-long project analyzing our state’s policy options to decarbonize the electricity sector. The NC State Environmental Management Commission relied on the report to shape new policy. This work also has potential for global impact as illustrated by policies discussed at the November Glasgow COP26 climate conference.

Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Director Alice Ammerman and the Sheps Center’s Seth Berkowitz and Darren DeWalt joined with Blue Cross NC to address food insecurity through better nutrition. The study is addressing health outcomes through non-medical drivers of health, namely food, and the results have global implications for using nutrition to treat chronic conditions.

To promote artistic and humanist teams, the Office of Research Development identified a funding opportunity focused on music therapy sponsored by the NIH Institute of Integrative and Complementary Medicine. The College of Arts & Sciences partnered with the School of Medicine’s Department of Allied Health Sciences and clinical and Appalachian State University’s music therapy program. They’re currently concepting a rehabilitative breathing program for long COVID patients using operatic breathing techniques.

Our office also partnered with the Institute of Arts and Humanities to encourage artistic practice by providing pilot grants. Examples of such work include Mohamed Mwamzandi’s digitization of Pulaar Islamic texts in Senegal and Mali to preserve a vital language from extinction. Angela Stuesse’s research on immigration policy, homophobia, racism, and family separation impacts on the life experience of an undocumented youth was also funded by this program. Her studies blend ethnography and cultural analysis to cultivate empathy and understanding.

Research Perseveres was the theme for this year’s University Research Week, which was held last month. The theme was chosen to illustrate how research at Carolina progressed during the challenges of the pandemic, civil rights protests, and other unprecedented events of the last year. Amongst the more than 60 events featured during the week, the signature event — The Health of Our State and Beyond series — highlighted winning Creativity Hubs teams who provided overviews of the challenges they are working to eradicate around the world, despite the pandemic.

UNC’s research and innovation pipeline came together with the official launch of the Institute for Convergent Science (ICS) this year. While research encompasses fundamental investigation, discovery, and pre-development, the ICS covers the pre-commercial environment with technical and product de-risking and development. Along with Innovate Carolina, this pipeline establishes a comprehensive innovation ecosystem supported by the Advance Therapeutics Initiative (AdvanTx) — which brings together scientific expertise to organize and advocate for funding to develop a commercialization strategy. Currently, the AdvanTx team has vetted more than 30 projects and is actively working to advance several more.

UNC’s gene therapy investments have propelled Research Triangle Park as a go-to place for corporate expansion of gene therapy manufacturing. The NC VVIRAL project represents an academic-industrial partnership focused on developing next-generation biomanufacturing processes for gene therapy products and the development of tailored curricula to train the biomanufacturing workforce.

These examples are just a few of many scholarly advances that have been made this year. Many more stories can be found in Endeavors, which is the publication that showcases Carolina’s best science and artistic discovery. Three series within the Endeavors publication include:

  • Foundations, which uncovers the nature of basic science and its potential to shape the world;
  • Research Uncovered, a biweekly series that showcases researchers at all career levels and highlights what inspires them, how they overcome obstacles, and a little about their lives outside labs and offices; and
  • Time & Tenacity, which focuses on Carolina discoveries and inventions since the founding of the university.

I’d like to emphasize again that Carolina Next is a living and dynamic process. Under the Discover initiative, we are continuously planning, evaluating, and changing to meet the problems of the day. This process involves the OVCR interacting biweekly with UNC’s research deans and pan-campus centers and institutes directors. This group is now diving into research at the College, the schools, and our centers and institutes to create individual strategic plans that guide the Discover objectives.

Research has persevered at Carolina during the challenges of the last few years thanks to the dedication of our faculty, staff, and trainees. Our research enterprise is one of the best in the country — one that we can take pride in.

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