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Philanthropy Powers Pioneering Research at Jefferson

 3 min read

Groundbreaking research at Jefferson has grown exponentially over the past decade and a half. But maintaining the pace of advances will require additional philanthropic support.

“Our research enterprise has doubled over the past 15 years, but in order to grow Jefferson as a research powerhouse, resources must be invested—resources that support faculty and facilities,” says Steven B. McMahon, PhD, Chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Senior Associate Dean for Basic Science Research at Sidney Kimmel Medical College, and Senior Associate Provost for Programmatic Science at Thomas Jefferson University.

“Our research buildings are full to capacity,” he says. “We need more space and we need to continue to recruit more high-profile, cutting-edge investigators from across the country and across the world.”

The focus at Jefferson is on improving the health outcomes of individuals as well as the community at large, says David Whellan, MD, MHS, the James Wilson Professor of Medicine, Executive Director for the Jefferson Clinical Research Institute, Senior Associate Dean for Clinical Research at Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Deputy Provost for Research.

From basic science to clinical trials to the development of novel treatments for a multitude of conditions, it all starts in the laboratory.

For McMahon, the work centers on understanding how cells in the body distinguish themselves from other cells.

“We try to understand how specific gene patterns in the genome are expressed in cell type A versus cell type B… [for example] those that go from a normal cell to a malignant cell,” he says. “That is considered basic biomedical research.” However, the NIH and other government granting entities won’t provide funding for research until there is data proving a viable hypothesis.

McMahon adds, “The NIH doesn’t give out a million dollars to an investigator just because they have a good idea; they really have to show that that idea is feasible. We need to find funds to do the pilot experiments that get us those first pieces of data that can be shown to NIH to prove that we’re on the right track. And that’s where philanthropy comes in.”

Pilot studies that have brought in increased NIH funding have led to better understanding of a multitude of diseases, including melanoma and prostate cancer, and the development of effective medications and vaccines. In fact, it was basic research that enabled the rapid development of vaccines and medications for COVID-19, he says.

An example of how pilot funding can lead to successful treatments, says Whellan, is one of his own projects.

As a cardiac specialist, Whellan had an idea that physical therapy would be an effective intervention for older heart failure patients. He received funding for his research through a gift from a generous benefactor. That enabled him to perform a small study that made the project eligible for a grant from the National Institute of Aging. That led to a much larger study that could mean life-changing therapy for older cardiac patients.

Another important area that wouldn’t be possible without generous benefactors is the facilities that house the research, as NIH and other government agencies do not provide grants for construction projects.

“Having philanthropic dollars to help us build new laboratory and new research spaces is a critical part of growing research at Jefferson,” Whellan says, noting that the planned Caroline Kimmel Biomedical Research Building is being supported through philanthropy. The facility, which was named with a gift from the Kimmel family, will provide state-of-the-art facilities for researchers and principal investigators, says McMahon.

Philanthropy also supports professorships—positions that attract world renown faculty to Jefferson to bring in new ideas—as well as scholarships for students who are pursuing academic careers that center on research, adds Whellan.

“It takes philanthropy to make things happen,” he says. “We know we can go further. We have a strategic plan that has a vision for continued growth at Jefferson… and we are continuing our journey to improve lives.”

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