• Podcast
  • Dec 06 2021

'Behind The Blue': An Overview of Research with Dr. Lisa Cassis

Research at the University of Kentucky is a $468 million enterprise that touches every part of the university community. Scientists and scholars come from around the world to teach, discover and lead in fields that cross all of UK’s colleges, programs and library system.

Dr. Lisa Cassis has served as the University of Kentucky's Vice President for Research since June 2015. As head of the university’s research enterprise, she oversaw creation of the $265 million Healthy Kentucky Research Building, which is home to researchers focusing on Kentucky’s most pressing health challenges: cancer, diabetes and obesity, cardiovascular diseases and substance use disorder. As a professor and researcher in the Department of Pharmacology and Nutritional Sciences in the UK College of Medicine, Dr. Cassis has been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for 30 years.

She is principal investigator on several multi-million-dollar federal grants, including serving as program director of an $11.3 million NIH grant that supports the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) focusing on obesity and cardiovascular diseases. She is an expert on the renin-angiotensin system, which her research has shown to be a link between obesity and hypertension.

On this episode of Behind the Blue, Dr. Cassis is joined by Alicia Gregory, UK’s Director of Research Communications, for a conversation that touches on the impact of UK's Healthy Kentucky Research Building, UK's "trifecta" of NIH research designations that power our infrastructure, and UK's work to take discoveries into communities across the Commonwealth.

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For questions or comments about this or any other episode of "Behind the Blue," email BehindTheBlue@uky.edu or tweet your question with #BehindTheBlue. Transcripts for this or other episodes of Behind the Blue can be downloaded from the show’s blog page.

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Alicia Gregory: We're joined today by the vice president for research, Dr. Lisa Cassis. Thanks so much for being with us today.


Lisa Cassis: Oh, it's a pleasure to be with you, always, Alicia.


Alicia Gregory: I'd like to start by talking about something that's dramatically impacted all of us COVID-19. So it presented some seemingly impossible challenges for our research community. What are some of the ways you witnessed our research investigators uniting and innovating during that challenge?


Lisa Cassis: Oh, my. Where do I begin? So many ways, I guess I'd start with the ability to manage research during the pandemic and how I saw them unite as I asked for their help. They served on ad hoc, very quickly put together groups that deliberated over how could we continue research or not in a safe way, whether it be at the bench, whether it be in clinics, whether it be in the field or whether it be in communities, and they develop strategies to help investigators to be able to conduct their research in a safe way and to protect their subjects and their participants, which was so vitally important. So I saw innovation and how we all came together to manage how we could continue our research mission during the pandemic. The other ways that I saw innovation were just, you know, in the pure research itself. And some again, in the infrastructure. So, for example, we put together in collaboration with the College of Medicine through their Alliance program, a CURE Alliance that was focused on COVID-19 research. It was led by Becky Dutch, the vice dean for research in the College of Medicine. I was a participant because my own research touched on the subject. And we met on a very regular basis. We educated ourselves on everything happening nationally and then found ways to see support at the University of Kentucky in different realms towards COVID-19 research. We did the same thing in a materials and methods approach where, for example, DB Bhattacharya in the Membrane Sciences Center was the award of an NSF Rapid that then help them develop a novel mask with new membranes that would catch the virus and prohibited from being transmitted.


We also did one in social sciences because COVID has impacted our mental health in so many ways. And that group has supported over, I think, 15 pilots across the university for investigators applying their expertise to the problem. So I saw it in every way. I guess last but not least, is through our Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences and Dr. Greenberg in his efforts and having the University of Kentucky and Kentucky participate in the COVID vaccine trials where we were able to bring those trials into Kentucky before the vaccines were available widely and help our citizens participate and get some if they were in the right treatment group, potential vaccination against the virus. So I saw it every way possible. Amazing.


Alicia Gregory: So how do you see research on campus changing in this post-COVID era?


Lisa Cassis: Well, I think we've learned a lot about how to do research. And we may have to learn from that to do things a little differently. For example, when we were restricted to essential research activities only we had to rethink how do we deploy our personnel in doing certain things so that we didn't have multiple people doing the same task, exposure levels go up, et cetera. So I think we've all become more efficient and effective in operating our own programs. We even had the investigators develop a protocol for their laboratory for how they were going to manage their research in a safe and effective way. I think we'll continue that. I think safety is a priority. I see researchers, even though we're at full capacity following, you know, scheduling of activities, so there aren't too many people in place. I think we've learned a lot from a community research and how you know this type of research got really hit hard from the pandemic, but how we can maybe operate a little differently to make the participants feel more safe and participating in studies in times of challenge like COVID gave us. And I think, you know, for us, we all went remote. Initially, we focused on our research mission in different ways through scholarly activity, through grants and contracts. We pivoted and that pivoting taught us that, you know, if we can focus our efforts at times on different parts of this problem, we can make advances. So lots of different things. I think we're still learning from the pandemic.


Alicia Gregory: Absolutely. I think we will for some time.


Lisa Cassis: I think so, too.


Alicia Gregory: So I know early on one of the meetings I sat in with you and a bunch of our top investigators, you encouraged them to go home and write grants. And based on our research awards recently, it looks like that's exactly what they did.


Lisa Cassis: They sure did. You know, all of our research staff offices went remote and we weren't quite sure what to expect and they were busier than they've ever been. So many grant proposals were submitted during the pandemic. People, you know, had time to think. And when you have time to think, new ideas come to you. So yeah, I think our activity, what we ended last year at $468 million in grants and contracts. Honestly, I had when I started this position, I had no idea we would be there within six years. Amazing growth in the research mission across the whole university, certainly during the pandemic, in healthy areas and other areas that were appropriate to try to solve the complexity of the problems, but just widespread growth across UK.


Alicia Gregory: So we recently announced the renewals of both of our CTSA grant that funds the Center for Clinical and Translational Science and also the National Institute on Aging award to Sanders-Brown Center on Aging. Those awards, along with our National Cancer Institute designation, make UK one of only 29 institutions in the nation to have what we call the trifecta of research designations. What impact do those prestigious NIH designations have on our research?


Lisa Cassis: It's an impact that is immeasurable because it's so important. It permeates everything that we do. Let's start with the Center for Clinical and Translational Science, the NIH award that supports the entire research infrastructure for clinical translational community research. It's what we call agnostic to any particular disease state, so it services everything, whether it's cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular, you name it, infectious disease. It services it. It provides the way that people can take their ideas, get them out into communities, get them into human subjects, get them beyond a bench or a cell system and really answer the impactful questions. It helps us with things like compliance and protecting the subjects. It helps us in so many ways and that when it's just hard to even explain, it's just such a broad impact. And it's really the underpinning of what I would call an academic medical center, which we are where, you know, it's supposed to be a two-way cutting edge between the research and clinical care and back and forth. So without that particular grant, we would not be able to make the strides in having impactful questions answered in the health realm, grants like the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging. They are what are called center grants, so they are also infrastructure grants. For example, they train the next generation. They create things like biobanks for those brain samples that people can have access to understand if their molecule of interest is disregulated or not correct, and in a brain from an Alzheimer's patient, for example, they can gain access to things that they would never be able to gain access to without those sorts of centers. Markey Cancer Center a similar thing a really defined structure by the National Cancer Institute experts that know what they're doing put together that structure and that structure seeds research not just at UK, but all across Kentucky and beyond through all of its different programs of training, community engagement, you name it, biobanks service corps facilities with specialized equipment, just, you know, if we don't have these things we are siloed. And I think you're going to ask me a question about our strength, which is collaboration. So to be able to have that collaboration requires these sorts of infrastructures in place.


Alicia Gregory: Absolutely. Since you've been vice president for research, there's been an increased emphasis on collaboration. What are some of the key areas that you've seen and some of the unique collaborations that have come together?


Lisa Cassis: Well, yesterday we had our monthly research advisory group meeting, and it was an opportunity to hear from what I called two pioneers and two pioneers that are perfect examples of collaborations that can have an impact if someone just believes in their own and invest in them. The first was Bent Seales in computer science with his EDUCElab, which is like an incredible facility, probably one of few in the US that will rival this what he is building on his own program and beyond in the ability to interrogate artifacts that may be damaged, that cannot be otherwise interrogated through computer science methods. So it's a perfect example. And he's engaged undergrads, grads. He's been all over the world doing this type of work brought it back so that Kentucky will be now a leader in this sort of area. Highly collaborative. He relies on teams of investigators, for example. What he described was vehicles that will have the equipment that will go to the site and have the ability to interrogate that artifact in a way that makes us all comfortable in handling the artifact. So, you know, big collaborations, engineering, computer science, AG arts and sciences could not have done another otherwise. The other example was the Beam Institute, the James B Beam Institute, led by Seth DeBolt, a ground up from his training in wine, and he brought that to the bourbon area for Kentucky. A perfect marriage between educational opportunities and research around a major industry for Kentucky, the bourbon industry. So, you know, how did he do that? He partnered again with faculty and chemistry and arts and sciences engineering all over the place, even the health aspects of alcohol abuse, for example. So perfect examples how teams of people come together with a ground roots up idea and can and take that beyond the university to other realms.


Alicia Gregory: Our campus has taken intentional strides to improve diversity, equity and inclusion. What are some of the opportunities for increasing diversity in research and what initiatives have you taken as VPR in this area?


Lisa Cassis: Well, I'm very proud of what we're doing. You can never do enough. But I think we've been really in our, you know, our way of being very strategic of moving forward in this area. We started a few years ago with a postdoctoral training program that we support out of my office, and this is for trainees of diversity or underrepresented in their field of study as well. And what we added to that program, and I have to thank Nancy Schoenberg in her efforts as associate vice president for research with me, who has led these programs. We added a curriculum to the program, so the trainees really have opportunities for advancement in their career, how they can learn about the research infrastructure, receive help towards grant submissions, a network of feel and involved and integrated into the university as a whole. We then broaden that out at the faculty level and we now have a program called the Research Scholars Program. We piloted the program a year ago. We have 13 faculty that are enrolled in the program. It's focused on their research career development. It gives them all kinds of opportunities and help. And again, that integration and networking across the institution towards their research activities and to advance their career. We use that as an underpinning of an application that is pending to the National Institutes of Health called the NIH FIRST program. If we are successful in that program, we would be able to recruit 10 biomedical scientists to the University of Kentucky, either of diversity or studying diversity. And they would be in areas like cancer, like neuroscience. These signature areas of priority for where they would be enriched by the strengths in those areas, by our faculty and staff and students. And I'm thinking now we also have the most important really for us, which is called the UNITE. UNITE is now one of seven research priority areas for the University of Kentucky. UNITE stands for UNited In True racial Equity. It's led by associate vice president for research Danelle Stevens-Watkins. They have done more than I would ever envisioned in a year's time in that priority area. They have engaged UK across the entire campus. Seated pilots engage the community in a two-way conversation with what's needed to help the community just every way I can think of. They have put forth in the research of racial and social injustice and health equity and beyond.


Alicia Gregory: So one of the unique opportunities here at UK for undergrads is to do research and scholarship with our highly respected investigators in all the disciplines that we offer here. What's the benefits of engaging students in the culture of research early in their academic careers?


Lisa Cassis: Well, you know. It probably take me an hour to describe the benefits, but I guess I put myself, you know, if I were a student right now, OK? And what would be different about coming to the University of Kentucky versus some other institutions, for example? And I think what would be different is we are an R1 research intensive university. And by virtue of that, they can participate in cutting-edge research. And typically students, like myself even, they gravitate towards things that influence their families. So my father suffered from heart disease for years. That's what led me into cardiovascular research, and I was able to, even as an undergraduate, start participating in that. It teaches you a way of thinking sometimes that's beyond the didactic classroom. It teaches you how to approach a problem or question, no matter what the question is. It's just, you know, it's such a broadening experience for your undergraduate education. I can't imagine that more students than we've been given the opportunity to participate would like to. And that's what we'd like to do. Every student that would like to have an undergraduate research experience as part of their education here, we would want to give that opportunity.


Alicia Gregory: So how does research happening here in Lexington make a difference in the lives of Kentuckians living in our more rural areas, including Appalachian Kentucky? Tell me some of the ways our researchers are partnering with communities. We've touched on this a little bit, but I know there's so many more like through our HEAL study.


Lisa Cassis: Yeah, I mean, the HEALing Community Study supported by the National Institutes of Health. And as a consortium of those four states, one of which is Kentucky, I have never seen a program that's so broad reaching in those communities, those 16 communities where it's operating right now. When that group, I'm fortunate to have the opportunity to hear of their progress on a regular basis, led by Dr. Sharon Walsh, who runs our Center for Drug and Alcohol Research here and a plethora of faculty all across the university and beyond. They have hired so many people that are out in those communities, firsthand interacting with people influenced by the problem, needle exchange programs and know helping them get into medication assisted therapy and to other sources and ways, educating providers on the dangers of prescribing opioids and other drugs beyond their standard use protocols. So many things that they do in the community that let's hope are achieving that goal of reducing deaths from opioids by 40%, that that's where they're marching. That's a perfect example of how UK can use our strengths and be out there doing what we need to do. Even in the programs we've talked about today. Our Cancer Center, NCI designated grant has a heavy focus in rural Appalachia because of the high incidences of so many different types of cancer there, where they have recruited outstanding people that are out in the community with engagement and research around cancer. You know, their role was to try to help understand and educate towards being tested, for example, having a colonoscopy or other diagnostic tests, so we can get a jump on understanding when someone has a diagnosis of cancer and treat it more rapidly. Things like that are even our Clinical and Translational Science Award from the NIH. They all have a focus on Appalachia because the health disparities are so rampant there. And we understand that we even have now centers here at the university, for example, the Center for Health Equity Transformation led by Dr. Schoenberg, where their entire focus is in these rural communities and engaging people, they're educating them. You know, literally every meeting I go to where I'm updated about a research project, I see heavy focus and emphasis in areas of the most need. It's quite amazing. I just attended a meeting from the NIH Superfund group. It's the National Institutes for Environmental Health Sciences. We have a Superfund group of investigators here, and a required element of that program is outreach to the community and especially in areas of Appalachia, where unfortunately, environmental pollutants are present and influence their health. They're sampling. They're educating. They're creating little food markets and gardens and all kinds of things to try to help people lower those toxin burdens in their body and their and their damage to the body. So there's just there are so many examples. It really is something we should probably pull together in some way to show in almost every county, we have a presence in that realm.


Alicia Gregory: You have also been very involved in the creation of our Healthy Kentucky Research Building. How has that altered the face of UK research and how have Kentuckians benefited directly from the creation of that new research building?


Lisa Cassis: Yeah, that that building, you know, honestly, I was I was thrilled beyond belief when the state invested in the University of Kentucky through the Healthy Kentucky Research Building. We knew that our ability to grow and recruit new talent to the university, especially in areas of these health disparities like cancer and Alzheimer's and cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. We were limited. We had no modern space, very little to bring new people to the university around important themes like what's happening in that building. Another thing that it helped us do... so half of the building is for new people coming to the university. And the areas that are within the building. So far, cancer, cardiovascular disease, neuroscience, substance use disorders and diabetes and obesity, and most recently, the recruitment of Dr. Messaoudi as the chair of microbiology and immunology in the College of Medicine, who will also go into that building for infectious disease types of research on COVID-19 and beyond things like antibiotic resistance, other, you know, infectious disease problems that so many people in Kentucky experience. That building is the vehicle for our growth, and it's the vehicle for our growth in a way that promotes that collaboration because of the structure of the laboratories as neighborhoods. An additional feature of that building is that they're the connector building, which houses people, for example, the lead of the community engaged research for the cancer centers in that connector building right next to people at the bench studying cancer at the molecular level. It's like incredible opportunities for translation of the work and a two-way conversation. So I see that building as largely contributing to the growth of research that we've experienced at UK from now and beyond.

Alicia Gregory: So we'll wrap up our conversation today with what's the outlook for UK research? Where do you see us heading in the next five years?

Lisa Cassis: Yeah, well, you know, I have to say I'm getting a little tired. There's a lot of going on, a lot of growth, a lot happening nationally and I think, you know, looking at the national climate and what's happening, the United States Innovation and Competitive Act, for example, what's called USICA, which will, you know, really change the landscape of innovation and discovery in the US and reposition the National Science Foundation and around that, you know, we want to be competitive for that and we want to be competitive in ways that help the economy of Kentucky and improve lives of Kentuckians. So we are paying a lot of attention to those types of opportunities that will be coming, hopefully through Congress if they are supported. We need in the U.S. to maintain our competitiveness and innovation and discovery globally. And I'm just sincerely hoping that programs like that become available for our investigators and we are positioning ourselves towards those realms things like advanced manufacturing, artificial intelligence, all types of areas where we're strengthening our base here at UK and that where we think Kentucky can play a role and a role that's distinct because of our strengths and our state and our region in innovation and discovery for the US.

Alicia Gregory: Well, Dr. Cassis, thank you for joining us today for Behind the Blue and sharing the impact of UK research.

Lisa Cassis: Always a pleasure. We just got to keep going. Lots to do out there. Thank you, Alicia.