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Duke, NCCU join forces. How much is involved and what does it mean?

NCCU one of Duke's 'most significant partners' in advancing health

Duke and N.C. Central Universities are joining forces in a $1.9 million partnership to seed new medical research projects and train new researchers.
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Duke and N.C. Central Universities are joining forces in a $1.9 million partnership to seed new medical research projects and train new researchers.

Duke University is putting $1.9 million into a partnership with two institutes at N.C. Central University that campus leaders on both sides hope will fuel joint medical research projects and the chance for students at NCCU to gain training and certificates in how to conduct clinical research.

The schools rolled out the agreement Friday, with NCCU Chancellor Johnson Akinleye and Duke Chancellor for Health Affairs Chancellor Eugene Washington signaling their support for a deal initially negotiated between the directors of Central’s Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise (BRITE) and Duke medical school’s Clinical & Translational Science Institute.

It’s “supposed to produce a partnership around developing careers in research,” said Ebony Boulware, director of the Duke institute. “There are scientific strengths N.C. Central has that Duke doesn’t have. They’re complementary.”

Funding-wise, Boulware’s institute is backing the effort to the tune of about $1.9 million. A measure of how seriously it’s regarded by Duke is that the institute’s officials pursued the deal without being certain of securing future grant support for it, said Faye Calhoun, interim director of what NCCU calls the BRITE program.

“What I learned is that grant or no grant – grant or no grant – we want the project,” Calhoun said, recounting what she heard from Duke officials in talks that began nearly a year ago. “Now that’s progress. That’s a milestone.”

Calhoun added that she’d deflected a previous feeler from the Duke institute, early this decade while she was interim director of NCCU’s separate Biomedical/Biotechnology Research Institute, because she felt it was insufficiently serious.

“What we were looking for was partnership,” Calhoun said. “And that means, if we have a research project, that means ‘joint.’ Joined. Join together with a strong agreement on the roles and responsibilities because if you fail, I fail. And it’s got to be a feeling of that.”

Washington touted the project’s potential community benefits, which will include the organization of an annual “health equity conference” in Durham.

On the research end, the idea’s to marry the BRITE program’s focus on drug development and the Biomedical/Biotechnology Research Institute’s work on understanding why some diseases hit minority groups harder with Duke’s strengths in patient-centric, clinical research. A portion of Duke’s money will fund pilot-stage research projects.

That also ties into the training angle, as the two schools intend to create a degree-supplementing certificate for NCCU students, a course sequence they can take to obtain and show they have the mathematical and scientific skills for clinical research.

The details of that “remain to be decided,” but a committee that includes Duke, N.C. Central and industry representatives will plan the curriculum, said Steve Grambow, director of the Duke School of Medicine’s clinical research training program.

The schools also intend to set up internships at Duke for a limited number of the students who earn the certificates, he said.

Strategy-wise, the cross-institution deal is of a piece with others Akinleye has supported as NCCU’s chancellor and before that as its provost.

Central previously has established joint-degree offerings with N.C. State University and several nearby community colleges. And more could be on the way, as the chancellor said his staff has opened talks with N.C. A&T State University on the possibility of the schools joining forces in the field of chemical engineering.

“One of our goals is really to begin to expand our own academic portfolio,” Akinleye said. “But because of the duplications that we already have in the [UNC] system, it’s not easy. It’s much easier for us to partner.”

Friday’s announcement was noteworthy for deepening NCCU’s ties with Duke at time when nearby UNC Chapel Hill remains something of a beleaguered institution and when the UNC system itself isn’t exactly a paragon of stability.

Akinleye said NCCU has “collaborations with Chapel Hill as well.”

“But we don’t want to just limit collaborations to institutions within our system,” he said. “Duke is very close to us here, and as close neighbors, we want to develop close partnerships.”

Nonetheless, such efforts “are not going to be limited to just Duke,” Akinleye said, adding that he wants closer ties between NCCU, the Triangle’s other universities and even some key private-sector players like Quintiles.