The University of Maryland School of Medicine has embarked on the most ambitious recruiting drive of its 210-year history — an effort to hire top scientists with the goal of making its biomedical research programs the best in the country.
The mission, Dean E. Albert Reece said, is to attract by 2020 scores of researchers who will focus on finding new cures and treatments with a particular focus on three key areas — brain disorders, cancer, and cardiovascular and metabolic diseases — which are among the leading causes of death.
The medical school has hired a professional recruiting firm to help — something it does for senior positions, but never on such a large scale. It has already brought in four scientists from other institutions, Reece said. Another 12 are at various stages of the recruiting process; some are to visit in October, and others are nearing decisions.
Every scientist who is hired will likely bring along a "mini team" of researchers who are already involved in the work, Reece said.
"We are not just recruiting haphazardly," Reece said. "We have identified scientific gaps and created a profile of who we will be looking for. It is a targeted recruitment of investigators of a high caliber."
The new hires are to move into a 450,000-square-foot research scheduled to open in Baltimore next year. The school is using the $300 million state-of-the-art facility on West Baltimore Street as a key recruiting tool.
High-caliber staff can go a long way toward raising the prestige of a medical research school, professionals say. That, in turn, can help attract patients, other medical staff and research dollars.
Such staff also increase the potential for the school to become known for great medical discoveries.
"Patients want to go to a place where there are new treatments and cutting-edge care," said Alexander Ommaya, chief scientific officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges. "And that happens in places where you have this robust connection and commitment to research."
The budget of the National Institutes of Health, which funds the majority of medical research in the United States, has declined by 22 percent in the last decade when adjusted for inflation.
Landon King is executive vice dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He says the increasing scarcity of research dollars puts pressure on medical institutions to find an advantage when competing for grants.
"There has certainly been a lot of jockeying around the country to try to identify good people and recruit them," he said.
The University of Maryland School of Medicine is already well respected as a research institution. The school received $400 million in research funding last year, and it has made groundbreaking discoveries over the years in organ and limb transplants, HIV, and proton cancer treatment, among other areas.
Reece says administrators want to improve patient care, as well as make the school a major player in solving some of the country's most pressing health challenges and developing cures or treatments for some of the deadliest diseases.
"Our goal is to advance discoveries for the benefit of patients," Reece said. "Secondarily, there may be other benefits, such as more patients, but that is not our primary goal."
He said the research areas — brain disorders, cancer, and cardiovascular and metabolic diseases — were chosen for the broad shadow they cast on the population.
"They have had such a demonstrative impact on the health and well-being of people, and they kill so many people," Reece said.
The Obama administration has made finding cures to cancer and brain illnesses a top priority. President Barack Obama has launched a BRAIN Initiative — Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies — aimed at unlocking "the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears."
Obama has also put Vice President Joe Biden in charge of a "cancer moonshot" initiative, intended to produce a decade's worth of progress against cancer in five years. Biden's son, Beau, died of cancer last year.
Ommaya says it's good strategy for the University of Maryland to focus on research areas that will likely draw an infusion of funding.
"I think it is exciting to build on the priorities within the government and take advantage of the infrastructure being built … and making sure they have scientific expertise to supercharge this effort," Ommaya said.
Reece said the new researchers will work with faculty in departments throughout the University of Maryland system. The medical school has put more emphasis on research across disciplines — so, for example, the engineering department in College Park could work on health strategies with the medical school in Baltimore.
Michael Cryor, chairman of the medical school's board of visitors, said scientists want to work in an environment that encourages innovation.
"The ability to recruit has become much easier because the physician-science community really appreciates this is a growing institution, coupled with collaboration with Johns Hopkins and proximity to the NIH," Cryor said.
The new hires include dentists Motomi Enomoto-Iwamoto and Masahiro Iwamoto, a husband-and-wife team from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia specializing in orthopedics who will start in January.
Masahiro Iwamoto wasn't looking to move when a recruiter called him a year ago. His interest was piqued when he learned of the school's work with trauma patients.
He believes his work on the rare disease FOP, in which the body forms bone over muscles and ligaments, can be useful in treating soldiers who suffer similar bone formation after amputations.
The extra bone can be painful, he said.
"University of Maryland is the perfect place for me to apply my research," he said. " I like that they are eager to explore new therapy by doing clinical trials."
Physicians Konstantin Birukov and Anna Birukova, another husband-and-wife team, are specialists in pulmonary critical care at the University of Chicago School of Medicine and are expected to join the school in January.
Margaret M. McCarthy, professor and chair of the school's department of pharmacology, says attracting established scientists can be difficult. They might be comfortable where they are, or have families they may not want to uproot. Their current institutions might present strong counteroffers.
McCarthy is trying to recruit a researcher with expertise on life stress and how it increases the risk for depression, neurological disorders and other diseases. She wants her department to do more research in psychiatry, given the role of psychiatric medications in the treatment of mental illnesses.
"I think that it is always good to get top-notch scientists, especially at stages in their career when they can spark new initiatives," she said.