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WisBusiness: Top state medical institutions cooperate on research projects
10/11/2012

Physicians groups are notorious for waging turf wars, sometimes building clinics almost across the street from each other or luring away competing doctors with bonuses and other perks.

But the Wisconsin Network for Health Research (WiNHR) has bucked that trend, linking four medical institutions from around the state to cooperate on numerous studies.

The four members of WiNHR – pronounced “winner” – are Aurora Health Care in Milwaukee and Green Bay, the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation, Gundersen Lutheran Medical Foundation in La Crosse and UW-Madison.

Together, they provide doctors, scientists and their sponsors’ – such as pharmaceutical companies – access to more than 3 million residents in 50 counties, including patient populations from rural, urban and ethnically diverse communities, according to Deb Kruser, WiNHR director.

“On a clinical level, these institutions might compete, but they realize that on a research paradigm they all benefit by working together,” she said.

And while there were some initial reservations by the smaller institutions with the idea of working with the UW-Madison -- which does most of the medical research in the state -- she said they are now all "passionate about the WiNHR.”

She said the overall mission of the network is to improve health care in Wisconsin by fostering collaborative and multi-disciplinary research around the state. Kruser spoke Wednesday morning to BioForward, a Madison-based group that represents bioscience companies around the state.

She said some of the studies undertaken in recent years by network researchers include everything from the effects of infections during pregnancy to the genetics of warfarin dosing to irritable bowel syndrome biomarkers.

Other research has focused on adolescent scoliosis, diabetes, kidney disease and the use of helium/oxygen mixtures for the treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

She said an infant mortality study, which was initiated in 2008 by a UW-La Crosse microbiologist working with a Gundersen Lutheran infectious disease researcher, had nearly 800 subjects.

“You can imagine the difficulty of trying to implement a study like that at one site,” she said. “It probably would have taken a decade, but we were able to meet our enrollment in two-and-one-half years. And that project is now in data analysis.”

Another study, this one initiated in Marshfield by an oncologist, proposed looking at genetic variations among African Americans, who have a higher chance of dying from non-small cell lung cancer than whites or Hispanics.

“Ethnic diversity in Marshfield is not that great,” she said. “But by working with the WiNHR network and including both Milwaukee and Madison, this researcher could get the ethnic diversity he wanted.”

“We can’t help with every study,” she said. “But there are some unique projects where we can provide a vast reach across the state.”

Kruser said the push for the collaboration began in 2004 from the National Institutes for Health and the Food and Drug Administration, both of which were emphasizing translational research, community partnerships and other forms of cooperation to ensure that research would cover multiple populations.

She said it took some time for the network to get off the ground and that some of its initial attempts were a “disaster” because the institutions could not agree on standard protocols.

“So they had to take a step back and -- for regulatory reasons -- come up with more streamlined, efficient processes and contracting for multiple sites,” she said.

Since 2009, though, she said the network has ramped up its efforts and is now working with biotech and other companies that are interested in sponsoring research that has multi-site collaboration.

“We had to hone in on formalizing our infrastructure,” she said. “Now we are really prepared for taking on a multitude of studies.”

For more information on WiNHR, see http://ictr.wisc.edu/WiNHR.

-- By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

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