The University of South Florida reached a historic milestone in June when it was invited to join the Association of American Universities, a prestigious coalition of the 71 leading research institutions in the United States and Canada. USF is now one of only two institutions from the State University System of Florida (the University of Florida is the other one) to be a part of the AAU.
Although the acclaim spreads deservedly throughout the entire university, an obvious driving factor to the AAU invitation is USF Health and the Morsani College of Medicine, responsible for about 70% of the university’s total research dollars.
The AAU designation follows on the success of a highly successful 18 months for USF Health, following its official partnership in October 2021 with Tampa General Hospital. And it’s an important next step in USF Health and TGH’s 10-year shared vision to make Tampa a national medical district on par with such cities as Houston or Boston.
As physician Charles Lockwood, executive vice president of USF Health and the dean of Morsani College, explains, “Our goal at USF Health is to continue to build our research enterprise because it drives both quality in education and quality in clinical care. But it’s also a huge economic driver for Tampa. So every $1 in the National Institutes of Health funding generates $2.21 in goods and services in our local community. But for every $1 invested in public basic research, we generate $8.38 in industry investment over eight years.”
Lockwood credits John Couris, president and chief executive officer of TGH, for their shared commitment to growing Tampa’s emerging downtown medical district.
“There’s a huge potential benefit to driving biotech, pharma research and device development, right here in Tampa Bay in our growing medical district. It’s exciting that John and I both see our work as an opportunity to create a permanent economic engine for the Tampa Bay area,” Lockwood says.
After decades of working together, Tampa’s two medical powerhouses made their partnership official by forming the University of South Florida Tampa General Physicians, a joint affiliation that allows USF and TGH to work together for the benefit of Tampa Bay residents by supporting various academic medical centers throughout the Bay area where professionals are trained and specialized care is offered, all while supporting innovative research across multiple disciplines.
In addition to Tampa General’s ever improving and expanding downtown facilities, and USF Health’s Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation, a state-of-the-art location for the Morsani College of Medicine, the downtown area also houses the USF Heart Institute and the Tampa General Rehabilitation Hospital with construction underway for the TGH Behavioral Health Hospital, a new four-story hospital planned adjacent to the Rehabilitation Hospital.
Plans are also moving forward with the hope for another facility, in the near future, to serve neuroscience outpatients.
“Together we’re creating a footprint of research, and clinical care, that will ultimately bring to the Bay area biotech companies and create a real medical district which, hopefully, someday will be like Houston, Boston or San Francisco, our great academic medical centers. We’re two years away, but we’re certainly heading in the right direction,” Lockwood says.
The string of successes for USF Health in 2023 also include a record-breaking year for research funding. As Lockwood details, “at the close of this fiscal year, in July, we estimate that we’ll have, together with the faculty at Moffitt Cancer Center, a total of $305 million in research awards which is an absolute out of the park record for us over the last decade. We’ve doubled the number of NIH investigators and dramatically increased the amount of NIH funding.”
Increased funding fuels research and part of that includes clinical trials on new medications or treatments.
“We really have some great research centers of excellence,” Lockwood says. “Neurology, alone, currently has 170 clinical trials covering everything from Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s disease, Gehrig’s disease, acute trophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, ataxia, you name it.”
USF Health’s research impetus also gained important political support, this year, as the legislature funded a functional MRI machine.
“The machine allows for advanced imaging of the brain for research purposes,” Lockwood explains. “And that’s going to continue to expand our opportunities in neuroscience clinical trials and psychiatry or other areas of the university like psychology.”
The legislature also funded a $28 million hyperbaric oxygen therapy trial for veterans that have either post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. With the research mission enjoying such a successful year, the next push will be for legislature support for a new translational research center to continue to build research and opportunities for clinical trials with TGH,” Lockwood explains.
All the research success feeds directly into the success of USF’s Morsani College of Medicine.
“We continue to get students with the best MCAT scores in the state,” Lockwood says. “The class started last year with the 95th percentile nationally, the top 5% of students on that exam. Their median grade point average was 3.91. That’s pretty impressive. Most of them came from top 25 universities and we continue to be super competitive. We had about 5,600 applications for 177 spots. Every year I say we can’t possibly do better and every year we get better.”
The latest in medical research, and trials coupled with superlative medical training, serves the academic population of the Tampa Bay area well but the most important factor, of course, is the clinical side—how USF Health and TGH support patients and save lives.
Lockwood says, “We’re the fastest rising research medical school, according to US News & World Report, but over the past decade, we’re also the fastest rising in primary care, which is a huge news ranking.”
The USF Tampa General Physicians group leads the way with multiple divisions that are consistently ranked best in the State. ,
“A big change, in the past year, has been integrating our clinical practice operations with Tampa General Medical Groups … and that partnership continues to get stronger with all kinds of benefits,” Lockwood says. “Together, we’ve been able to dramatically enhance the quality of clinical care but also the research opportunities and training opportunities at TGH.”
For Lockwood, the three strands of USF Health’s success align—education and research, clinical practice—to “parallel the quality of the educational program, the research and clinical quality,” he says.
It’s been an outstanding year on the Tampa medical front, with more to come behind the partnership of USF Health and TGH. ♦