In 2011, the Kristal lab faced a stark dilemma. Bruce Kristal, PhD, who had joined the Department of Neurosurgery in 2007, had grants that would soon be expiring. While Kristal had other grant applications that were pending review, he realized that during the window of time before he’d be able to secure additional funding, he would likely be unable to sustain his lab. Kristal had already scaled back his team, but with the end date of grants looming, he would likely need to cut additional positions, shut down operations and ultimately leave BWH.
“A lab isn’t something you can close down and then just start back up again. If a lab closes, years of knowledge and work may be lost forever,” said Kristal. “The projects that you walk away from – the code that you built, the advancements that you made – may never realize the clinical impact that they could have.”
In March of that year, Kristal applied for a relatively small grant from the Brigham Research Institute (BRI) Fund to Sustain Research Excellence, a fund established to help researchers who have submitted a grant application to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that was reviewed favorably but missed the funding cutoff point. The $50,000 award that Kristal received came at a critical moment for the lab. “When I heard that I’d be receiving the award, I knew it had bought me a little time, and it meant that I could continue applying for other grants and wait for NIH review,” said Kristal.
Kristal would go on to successfully secure three grants, totaling $5.5 million, directly related to the research project for which he had received the Fund to Sustain Research Excellence award. In January, Kristal joined BWH’s Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, and his research efforts, which include investigations to pinpoint biomarkers of future risk of breast cancer and diabetes as well as bioinformatics analyses of large datasets, continue today.
The FSRE has awarded almost $6 million in interim support to 95 investigators since it was created in 2007 by Thomas Kupper, MD, chair of Dermatology, who established the FSRE with funding from the hospital, the BRI and the Department of Medicine during his tenure as founding director of the BRI. The fund is intended to provide bridge support to sustain research projects that are likely to receive federal funding in the future. The BRI estimates that investigators funded through this mechanism have gone on to secure approximately $213 million in NIH funds – an impressive return on investment.
“The Fund to Sustain Research Excellence is a concrete demonstration of BWH’s commitment to research, supporting investigators and maintaining the high quality of research that’s done at our institution,” said Kupper. “Our goal is to support investigators as they do cutting edge work, and the fund has done that for dozens of investigators who have gone on to successfully apply for federal funding.”
Three times a year, a committee meets to review applications and makes recommendations to the BRI executive committee. Robert Fuhlbrigge, MD, PhD, vice chair for research in BWH’s Department of Dermatology, has chaired the committee since its inception.
“Service on the FSRE review committee has been one of the most rewarding opportunities I have participated in at BWH,” said Fuhlbrigge. “This program has had tremendous impact at a time of great stress in the funding structure of medical science, helping outstanding investigators from across BWH to remain committed to their ideals and achieve success.”
Emily Stern, MD, director of Functional and Molecular Neuroimaging, serves as a member of the committee.
“Many federal grant applications are not successful the first time they are submitted, and the grant review will be returned to the investigator with suggestions for additional work that will strengthen the resubmission. But because the grant hasn’t been funded, the investigator may not have the resources to do that additional work. That’s why this fund is critical – it has helped so many people who find themselves in that situation.”
The fund is designed to support recipients, based on need and merit, whose NIH grant applications have been well-scored but missed the payline – an arbitrary cutoff point set by NIH institutes. Applicants must be in need of support and have a potentially fundable R01 or similar non-mentored NIH grant.
Applications to the Fund to Sustain Research Excellence come from departments across the hospital and across disciplines and include basic and clinical research projects. Both investigators in the early stages of their careers and more senior investigators have applied successfully to the fund in recent years, according to Stern.
Upcoming deadlines for applying for funding are April 4, August 8, and December 5, 2016.