Ten years after the creation of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, new university institutes and centers are bringing the world’s best medical ideas to New Jersey and beyond
When Richard Marlink arrived in Botswana 27 years ago, confronting cancer wasn’t on his agenda. As the executive director of the Botswana-Harvard Partnership, Marlink was focused on reducing the African nation’s high rate of HIV/AIDS infections.
But in 2016, when Marlink moved to New Jersey to create the Rutgers Global Health Institute, Botswana’s AIDS epidemic was largely under control. Cancer, however, was a different story.
“An estimated 80 percent of children diagnosed with cancer in Africa die from the disease, while in the United States, 80 percent of kids with cancer live,” Marlink said. “Why the disparity? It’s because of the inequity around cancer care.”
Shaping the future of health care and addressing health inequity – a multifaceted problem that includes what Marlink describes as the inability to access treatment “because of your zip code, race or socioeconomic status” – are challenges Rutgers researchers are tackling head on.
In 2013, Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS) was created to facilitate interdisciplinary cooperation across the university and to coordinate health professions education, clinical care and biomedical research. Following this reorganization, several institutes and centers have been established or strengthened to serve as hubs of health care and research innovation.
At Rutgers Global Health Institute, Marlink leads a team working to confront health injustice wherever it occurs. In addition to advancing digital pathology and expanding the use of distance learning and telehealth capabilities for cancer care and screening in Africa, institute faculty and staff are working with underserved communities to tackle urgent health needs in New Jersey, elsewhere in the United States and in many countries around the world.
One of the earliest institutes created after the founding of RBHS was the Brain Health Institute (BHI), a pan-Rutgers entity conducting basic, translational and clinical research into brain function and dysfunction. Today, the Brain Health Institute is an interdisciplinary neuroscience powerhouse with more than 300 principal investigators across 33 departments and seven Rutgers schools. Individual centers within the institute are focused on research and clinical programs addressing addiction, mental illness, autism and Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Expansion has been rapid. The Rutgers Center for Autism Research, Education and Services (RUCARES) was established in 2020 to address the high prevalence of autism in New Jersey and is a partnership between BHI and Children’s Specialized Hospital. RUCARES clinical services include new treatment options for autism patients with severe behavior problems.
Additionally, the Rutgers Addiction Research Center, launched in 2022, is already the largest comprehensive addiction research center in the U.S., while the Center for Advanced Human Brain Imaging Research is leading national efforts to improve the diagnosis of neurological and psychiatric disorders and to help personalize and monitor treatments.
Gary Aston-Jones, director of the Brain Health Institute, said a key motivator for the institute’s work is finding solutions to shared global challenges. Take substance abuse, for example.
“Addiction is an international health problem,” he said, and that demands “cross-disciplinary research to create new approaches for treating patients.”
The world is also the laboratory for the Institute for Infectious and Inflammatory Diseases (i3D) at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark (the No. 1 National Institutes of Health–funded institution in the state for basic science and clinical work). Like the Brain Health Institute, i3D was founded just after RBHS was created. Today, with five centers under its umbrella, i3D sits at the vanguard of efforts to detect, treat and prevent a wide range of current and emerging diseases caused by infectious agents and harmful inflammation.
The Public Health Research Institute, first established in New York City in 1942, is among i3D’s most active members. Over the course of its history, public health research scientists have made seminal discoveries in biochemistry, genetics, microbiology, virology, immunology, cancer research, neurobiology and infectious diseases.
A more recent addition to the i3D network, the Center for COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness, has championed global public health solutions. Since its launch in 2020, the COVID-19 center has set up safety protocols for working with the virus, designed one of the world’s first rapid tests to detect variants, found that certain mouthwashes can neutralize the virus and conducted clinical trials on vaccines, among other endeavors.
“We went from zero to 60 in a matter of weeks,” said David Alland, the center’s director.
Even as it continues its work on the coronavirus, the center is gearing up for the next global pandemic.
“We need to be able to spring into action on all fronts just as we did for COVID-19,” Alland said.
RBHS centers and institutes are tackling health problems big and small, actual and theoretical.
In 2019, the School of Public Health’s Center for Nicotine and Tobacco studies become a chancellor-level center at RBHS and is now known as the Institute for Nicotine and Tobacco Studies. It has become one of the nation’s leading tobacco-focused research centers that seeks to reduce and ultimately eliminate tobacco-related morbidity and mortality in New Jersey, the nation and around the world.
At the Center for Population-Level Bioethics, meanwhile, scholars led by Nir Eyal, a bioethicist and political philosopher, seek answers to macro-level bioethical dilemmas, such as measuring and evaluating health inequalities or disease severity. The bioethics center collaborates with experts around the world to study the benefits and unintended consequences of health policy.
Increasing health equity at local, national and global levels is also a priority for the Rutgers Institute for Translational Medicine and Science (RITMS). Founded in 2015, the Rutgers-led alliance of universities and health care institutions works to “translate bench research into new drugs, treatment options and devices that will improve patient and community health,” said RBHS Chancellor Brian Strom.
Led by Reynold Panettieri, a pulmonologist who is the vice chancellor for translational medicine and science at Rutgers, the institute focuses on bringing together researchers, clinicians, biologists and members of the pharmaceutical industry to address unmet medical needs. Areas of focus include developing new drugs to treat chronic asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
In 2019, an RITMS-led team that includes Princeton University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology received a National Institutes of Health grant for $29 million for joining the National Institutes of Health’s Clinical and Translational Science Awards Program (CTSA). It recently has renewed that grant at a higher funding level.
The CTSA program at Rutgers, known as the New Jersey Alliance for Clinical and Translational Science, is helping Rutgers and its partners engage patients and communities in every phase of the translational process; promote the integration of special and underserved populations in translational research; and advance the use of big data information systems.
Panettieri said that one of the top goals of the CTSA initiative is “to reach populations that are ignored in clinical trials” by going into communities not typically represented in such work.
It is this shared mission – expanding health care quality and access – that makes the RBHS era so important and impactful, Marlink said.
“Around the world, there's lessons to be learned that we can bring back to New Jersey,” Marlink said. “Whether it’s treating cancer, addressing the AIDS epidemic or fighting COVID-19, learning together, and from each other, is the best way to succeed."
RBHS 10th Anniversary
In 10 years, Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS) has seen transformational achievements that have catalyzed us, changed Rutgers, and benefitted New Jersey and our valued partners and communities. Throughout this year, we're celebrating our impact and telling our story.