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Simmonses donate $3 million for collaborative medical research

By Lily Chun     8/21/08 7:00pm

The Virginia and L.E. Simmons Family Foundation donated $3 million in May to enable researchers from Rice, Texas Children's Hospital and Methodist Hospital to work together to conduct biomedical research.Simmons said there were two factors behind the birth of the grant: One has to do with cross-disciplinary research involving genetics, mental sciences, imaging, physics, biochemistry and mathematics; another has to do with the increasing difficulty of securing funding from the National Institute of Health, which he said is a key source of medical-oriented financing.

"Unless you're a proven researcher - 40 years or older - it's really hard to get funds from them," Simmons said. "The younger researchers, or research dollars for new projects that don't have a track record, are getting harder to find."

In order to receive the grant, researchers from at least two of the three institutions must collaborate together.

"We really want people to learn how to work together and draw in other disciplines," Simmons said. "In the past, Rice hasn't done a lot with Methodist or Texas Children's Hospital, but there are great projects that are being done now with terrific success."

Simmons said he hopes the grant will galvanize researchers to work together to accomplish more than they could by themselves.

"While any type of research is important, I think collaborative research within the Texas Medical Center and Houston is going to be the secret to long-term success and breakthrough," Simmons said. "There's too much going on in the field, and there's so much expertise in the medical center, that not to do it collaboratively would be a terrible waste of time, talent, opportunity and potential duplication."

Simmons said he realized that the three institutions needed to research collaboratively because he is a trustee at Rice and TCH as well as a member of the board of Methodist Hospital.

"I have an unusually fortunate position of being able to see what the plans are and objectives are and resources are at each of these institutions," Simmons said. "All three of these institutions are all building similar size and cost research centers, and they're all going to be finished at the same time, so they're all kind of excited about this idea of collaboration."

Simmons said TCH is building a research center on neurological research and is dependent on imaging, mathematical modeling and physics - something Rice researchers can do. He added that Methodist boasts Dr. King Lee, one of the top imaging doctors in the world, and Dr. Chuck Frasier, one of the top cardiovascular surgeons in the world, who is working with Rice researchers to design heart valves.

In fact, grant recipients will be able to work with some of these renowned researchers.

"The real thought leaders in these fields are very interested in this - interested in mentoring the younger rising stars," Simmons said.

Some of these thought leaders include Dr. Huda Zoghbi, a Howard Hughes-funded researcher, Rice's Vice Provost for Research Jim Coleman, Mike Lieberman at Methodist Hospital and Morey Haymond at TCH.

"It's their support and backing in helping make sure that the right scientists get this down the line that's going to make this work," Simmons said.

Coleman said one reason he got involved with planning the grant was because the Simmons' vision corresponded with President David Leebron's Vision for the Second Century to have Rice increase its research activity and scholarship program.

"We know one of the ways to be able to [increase research activity] is to collaborate as effectively as possible, particularly to take advantage of enormous research opportunities at the Texas Medical Center," he said.

Coleman said the project was exciting because the outcomes of the collaborative research could change medicine.

"[The Simmons family] has the vision that collaboration will ultimately lead to new cures for disease and hopefully ultimately ease human suffering," Coleman said.

The application can be found at www.collaborativeresearchfund.org and is due Sept. 1. About two to three grants per year -with a total of $200,000 awarded annually - can be awarded for five years.

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