Virend Somers, M.D., Ph.D.: Bringing CTSA-centric initiatives to the world
Building new and promising collaborations around the world is second nature to Virend Somers, M.D., Ph.D. During the last 10 years, he has fostered relationships with investigators from a number of different countries to accelerate discoveries toward better health.
When Mayo Clinic received the Clinical and Translational Science Award in 2006, Dr. Somers was already on the path to forging critical collaborations. As the director of both the Sleep Facility and Cardiovascular Facility in the Mayo Clinic Center for Translational Science Activities (CTSA), he was able to continue his collaborations and bring CTSA-centric initiatives to the world.
Investigators use the Sleep Facility to intensively study phenomena that occur partially or entirely during sleep or as a consequence of sleep deprivation. The Sleep Facility is closely integrated with the Cardiovascular Facility, making these resources uniquely suited to study the interactions between sleep and cardiovascular disease.
Forging critical collaborations
In 2009, Dr. Somers saw a need and an opportunity for an interinstitutional collaboration at the University of Barcelona in Spain. His lab group had long been interested in sudden deaths occurring during sleep, something to which patients with Brugada syndrome, an abnormality in the ion channels in cardiac cells, are prone.
He established contact with Josep Brugada, M.D., in Barcelona regarding studying a cohort of these patients during sleep. Investigators were not able to conduct research sleep studies due to a lack of resources in the cardiology department at the Thorax Institute, Hospital Clinic, Barcelona. Dr. Somers collaborated with Dr. Brugada and sent a team of researchers to Barcelona to set up a mobile CTSA Clinical Research Unit (CRU).
The researchers were able to conduct 20 sleep studies in a very short period of time — studies that otherwise would not have been possible. The collaboration has involved investigators from not only the U.S. and Spain but also Brazil, the Czech Republic, Italy and South Africa. The studies have resulted in a published paper, "Sleep-Disordered Breathing in Patients With the Brugada Syndrome," and a second paper is in review.
Dr. Somers' long-term collaboration — nearly 10 years — between Mayo Clinic and the St. Anne's University Hospital in Brno, Czech Republic, has yielded more than 20 completed research projects, three awarded patents on medical diagnostic equipment, six prototypes of equipment, and several new software products for the diagnosis and treatment of cardiovascular disease.
In 2011, St. Anne's University Hospital received substantial support in the amount of a $220 million grant from the European Union to support clinical research and education at the St. Anne's University International Clinical Research Center (ICRC). As a contributor to the grant proposal, Mayo Clinic received $10 million in research funding to support collaborations in the U.S. Dr. Somers serves as the Mayo principal investigator, the center's international scientific director and the one of the main authors of the ICRC project.
In 2012, the ICRC opened to Brno and the world. The ICRC is the third international research center and the first-ever international center for medical research. It is anticipated that because of the novel research involved, the center's work will advance medical research, education and patient care in Europe and beyond. Currently, there are 17 international research teams operating at the ICRC, including 307 experts.
"The ICRC will function much like the international space station," explains Tomas Kara, M.D., Ph.D., head of the ICRC and Brno's lead investigator on the grant, who trained at Mayo under Dr. Somers' mentorship. "Fellow researchers will come from other countries to work together in the new center to solve problems confronting patients and physicians around the world. This approach will shorten the research process by half."
The ICRC-Mayo collaboration has relationships with researchers in Brussels, Belgium; Barcelona, Spain; Gdansk, Poland; London, England; Milan, Italy; and the University of Minnesota.
Dr. Somers continues to be instrumental in the development and expansion of international research activities and collaborations for the Mayo Clinic CTSA.
"The necessity and consequences of science are such that research must transcend national and geographic restrictions in order to increase its relevance and applicability. It is also important that Mayo be seen as a leader not only in extending its investigative ethos to other countries and regions, but in doing so, continuing to maintain its high ethical and scientific standard. In this way, we can help establish Mayo's culture and values in institutions other than our own, thereby creating the foundations for broader, richer and more productive collaborations," says Dr. Somers.