Unique research pipeline drives opportunities for innovation in digestive disease research

Stylized illustration of intestinal wall showing microvilli and colorful tunnel or pipeline

MUSC’s digestive disease research programs connect and grow robust talent to ignite progress

by Shawn Oberrath

The MUSC Digestive Disease Research Core Center (DDRCC) maintains a coveted slot among 17 federally funded Silvio O. Conte Digestive Disease Research Core Centers nationwide, part of a group that includes heavy hitters like Harvard, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, Washington University and UCSF.

That alone is a testament to MUSC’s research strength in digestive and liver disease. But combined with MUSC’s NIH IDeA-funded Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) in Digestive and Liver Disease, the result is a uniquely robust research environment that is not replicated in this arena anywhere in the world.

“The thing that's really special at MUSC is the combination of the two funding programs,” explained Don Rockey, M.D., principal investigator for the DDRCC. “The two are complementary but distinct, and the combination is not found anywhere else in the country when it comes to digestive disease research.”

The DDRCC funding supports established midcareer investigators, while the IDeA program supports young investigators early in their careers.

The IDeA program was created to increase research capability in a defined group of states that historically have had lower levels of NIH funding – and South Carolina is a member of that group.

With programs for both early-career and established researchers as well as training grants for students, MUSC’s digestive disease research programs are thriving as they strive to solve the diseases that plague South Carolinians and patients nationwide.

Stephen Duncan, Ph.D., is the South Carolina SmartState Endowed Chair in Regenerative Medicine, and he and Rockey have created a collaborative umbrella under which researchers can find complete careers.

“We’ve been working together for the past 10 years to build a complete pipeline where we can support people all the way through their careers,” said Duncan. “We can begin with very young people first entering science who choose to start a digestive disease track, and later they can move on as young researchers and then eventually independent faculty.”

That capability is unusual in the academic research world, and Duncan and Rockey believe that it contributes to a deep, rich environment by pulling together committed clusters of researchers studying independent but related topics that affect digestive health.

And according to Duncan, that ultimately leads to improved digestive health care. “We have a lot of digestive health challenges in South Carolina, and it’s crucial to have an advanced health care system that uses research to push the envelope of treatment.”

The central research theme of the MUSC DDRCC is to study the processes of organ injury, inflammation and fibrosis that lead to digestive and liver diseases. Programs include basic and clinical research into diseases affecting all parts of the gastrointestinal tract and the liver as well as collaborations with the MUSC Hollings Cancer Center to support patients undergoing treatment for colon or liver cancer.

Holding the Conte Center grant has placed MUSC on a national stage where top researchers seek the chance for recruitment. The grant is up for renewal this year, and Rockey hopes for continued success in this competitive environment.

“It has been a remarkable achievement,” he said. “We’ve done a superb job so far, and I look forward to seeing how competitive we are moving forward.”

According to Duncan, there are many digestive and liver diseases that are near a tipping point for major advancements. With a deep field of talent in place, MUSC researchers are poised to help create the final push for some of these, including fatty liver disease, inflammatory bowel disease and gastrointestinal cancers.