May 13, 2021

We are number one

Being number one in the U.S. for National Institutes of Health (NIH) orthopaedic research funding is a noteworthy accomplishment in a country of many successful and productive orthopaedic programs. Also noteworthy: WashU Ortho has been in the top three of NIH-funded programs for the last decade or so. “It shows we’ve been able to sustain a high level of research accomplishment,” notes Matthew Silva, PhD, the Julia and Walter R. Peterson Orthopaedic Research Professor and Head of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery’s research division.

Why Does It Matter?

NIH funding is a gold-standard measure of program success. It means the work passes an incredibly high bar of peer review in a competitive landscape. NIH funding is universally recognized as a big accomplishment for an investigator — it lends credibility to the researcher, the project and the program as a whole.

In addition to the prestige, NIH funding is very important in a practical sense. It pays a lot of overhead related to a study, so the investigator’s home — in this case WashU School of Medicine — also benefits from funding. It also allows an investigator a fair amount of autonomy and flexibility. This means that while a researcher still has to test the hypothesis of the original grant, they are able to pivot in a different direction if they encounter a dead end. “That’s another reason why investigators value NIH grants so much,” adds Silva. “It’s a very practical way to conduct research and discover new things and go in different directions if the data point that way. Of course, we keep the NIH officials informed of our progress and any changes in direction through annual progress reports."

WashU Orthopedics received over $8.3 million from the NIH in 2020, according to the Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research (BRIMR). In addition, three WashU Orthopedics research faculty rank in the top 20 of NIH-funded principal investigators for orthopaedic research:

Collectively, WashU Orthopedics received a total of $11.3 million in orthopaedic research funding in 2020, an extraordinary accomplishment in challenging times.

How Did WashU Orthopedics Reach the Top?

It all boils down to the initiative of individual faculty members. “We’re not a top-down research organization,” shares Silva. Meaning, there is not one collective hypothesis, theory, disease state or treatment everyone is working on collectively and simultaneously. Each WashU Orthopedics investigator or lab has a different primary focus, including arthritis, low back pain, bone cancer and fracture healing.

Seasoned and Fresh Perspectives

 With a healthy blend of both seasoned investigators and energetic newcomers, WashU Orthopedics is poised to continue its role as a leader in research discovery and innovation in patient care. “We have a combination of outstanding young scientists and senior faculty who are international leaders in the study of musculoskeletal diseases. Many of our junior faculty members are using innovative techniques and new technologies and are being awarded their first NIH grants, including both full-time lab faculty and clinician scientists,” notes Regis O’Keefe, MD, PhD, the Fred C. Reynolds Professor and Chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. “Because we have a strong culture of collaboration and integration, the breadth and depth of our research program enables all of our faculty members to achieve at even higher levels.”


Reconciling Expectation with Rejection

Expectations are high for WashU Orthopedics research. “Washington University School of Medicine is a research-powerhouse establishment, so we’re here by choice,” explains Silva. “It’s not always easy, but it’s a very stimulating environment.”

It’s a challenging cycle of work. Researchers write grants and turn out work for peer review, only to face a high ratio of rejection. “But that’s how it works,” describes Silva. “We have high expectations, but it doesn’t mean we’re successful all the time. None of us are. The hard part is continuing to keep at the process and learning from peer review and rejection.”

The business of research is a lot like any other business: you have to keep innovating. In Silva’s words, “We have to keep thinking of new ideas, finding new collaborators. It requires a lot of energy and a lot of resiliency. The wheels are spinning all the time.”

Fulfilling a Mission

At WashU Ortho, the wheels, indeed, keep spinning. The department has a clear academic and research mission, and an entire cadre of investigators who never stop working to transform the future of orthopedic care through discovery and innovation.

A few investigators to keep your eye on:

  • Roberta Faccio, PhD – Dr. Faccio recently received a grant from the National Cancer Institute of NIH to study how bone cells interact with tumor cells in the setting of bone cancers. This is a significant accomplishment, as it’s historically difficult for someone working outside of an official cancer specialty to be awarded an NCI grant.
  • Jie Shen, PhD – Dr. Shen has been awarded two very significant NIH grants in as many years. He’s in the top 20 of NIH-funding principle investigators and he’s currently working on fracture healing and the role of chronic inflammation.
  • Simon Tang, PhD – Dr. Tang currently conducts research under the umbrella of six NIH grants. His work focuses on spine disorders, disc degeneration and low back pain, and his scope spans from basic research in mouse models to translational research in humans.
  • Christopher Dy, MD, MSc – Dr. Dy is a hand surgeon and clinical researcher who was recently awarded his first R01 grant to study patient-reported outcomes for adult brachial plexus injury. This builds on his K23 grant on the barriers to care for brachial plexus injury patients.

Learn more about exciting research at Washington University Orthopedics, and why patients choose WashU Ortho for their care.


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