When Dr. Kathleen Matt was a young girl in the 1950s, she lived with her family in the Binns section of Newark. From her backyard, she could see the water tower of the Chrysler assembly plant in the distance.
Having spent her career in education and healthcare, she has returned to Newark as the dean of the College of Health Sciences at the University of Delaware—and as head of one of the most wide-ranging health initiatives in Delaware history, one that will eventually occupy a portion of the property where the water tower still stands.
Matt is executive director of the Delaware Health Sciences Alliance, a coalition that partners the university with Christiana Care Health System, Thomas Jefferson University-Jefferson Medical College and the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children. The DHSA was formed in March 2009 to create broad opportunities for collaboration in biomedical research, medical and health professions education, public health and health policy. The main initiatives of the alliance are to develop world-class healthcare education, enhance bench-to-bedside research, and provide better healthcare by combining the expertise and resources of each partner institution.
“The alliance is the table in a room with the right people around it,” Matt says. “There you find the dreams that get people excited and, once you agree on them, you think of what needs to be done in order for the dreams to be realized. There is a common belief in the alliance partners that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, coupled with the reality that it’s being done in a state that’s small enough where everyone is connected—from government to healthcare—where it’s easy to ask for help and where people respond, ‘What are your needs? We want to help you and the people you help.’”
“When it comes to taking discoveries to the bedside and changing clinical practice so that you’re utilizing the best practices and bringing it to the community, it takes a village,” says Dr. Vicky L. Funanage, director of biomedical research for the Nemours Foundation. “We can’t do it alone, and that’s why this partnership is critically important.”
Funanage says that being a part of DHSA has allowed medical research in Delaware to move from the confines of a physician’s specialty to the wide-open field of health.
“Our expertise (at duPont) is children,” Funanage, “but there are many diseases we research that also affect adults, so by partnering with institutions that look at the whole spectrum of human life—from prenatal to birth to early childhood through adulthood to the elderly—provides Nemours with a continuum of learning that enhances all residents.”
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It is one thing to unite institutions and create an idea factory. It is another to show evidence that the ideas become reality. The DHSA has already established joint educational programs, faculty appointments and educational programs, and it has started research projects that involve investigators from each of the four institutions. In spring 2010, DHSA funded a project to link the biomedical information of the four institutions and establish a data warehouse for future research.
Because the state’s rate of cancer is higher than the national average, DHSA awarded a grant to find compounds that could be used in the development of potent new anti-cancer drugs. DHSA grants provide up to $75,000 for projects that last 12 to 18 months. Projects are selected based on scientific merit, the potential to lead to a larger proposal for federal funding, and the ability of the research team, which must include at least one investigator from each member institution to demonstrate successful collaboration.
“If you’re going to be a good physician, you’re going to be a lifelong learner,” says Dr. Brian W. Little, chief academic officer at Christiana Care. “We can propose scholarly activity on our own, but the best way you do excellent research is through collaboration. The alliance is an extension of that.”
Perhaps the ultimate game-changer for the DHSA will be its eventual home as part of the Thomas Jefferson University Clinical Campus on a portion of the 272-acre former Chrysler property that UD purchased in October 2009.
The complex will feature a state-of-the-art facility that will house UD’s College of Health Sciences, the Jefferson Campus for Healthcare Education and the Delaware Rehabilitation Institute. It will serve as a site of inter-professional training for medical, nursing and pharmacy students, as well as physical therapists, medical technologists, nutritionists, exercise scientists and behavioral health therapists. The campus will also be a place of work for healthcare professionals, faculty, researchers and administrators.
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“The creation of the campus will enable the healthcare industry in Delaware to put a stake in the ground and say, ‘Here is where we’re going to develop all of these ideas,’” Little says. “It will bring focus to life sciences and educational research, and it will provide a place to educate the next generation of healthcare professionals, which will bring rewards to the entire state and region.”
In addition to having a surefire economic impact on the state—hundreds of new jobs are expected to be created—the planned campus will also take advantage of the state’s location at the center of the nation’s most prominent healthcare and biomedical research and manufacturing corridor.
In her office, Matt keeps a photograph she believes bridges the roots of Newark with the goals of the foundation she heads. The photo, taken at the Chrysler plant in the 1950s, shows teachers from Newark High School posing on and around a fleet of new military tanks that would soon be shipped to service during the Korean War. She points to her late father, a former science teacher and football coach, who is dressed in suit and tie.
“The Chrysler plant had a huge economic impact on Newark at one time, and it was such a source of pride,” she says. “The formation of the Biomedical and Technology Campus, and the alliance being a part of that new site, continues to allow that property to keep giving back to the Newark community and beyond.”
For more information about the Delaware Health Sciences Alliance, visit delawarehsa.org.