As a former chief scientist and acting commissioner of the federal Food and Drug Administration, Frank M. Torti saw firsthand how promising discoveries of new drugs and treatments languished in the lab when teaching hospitals didn't understand how to get them approved and into the marketplace.
Dr. Torti will bring that insider knowledge, along with decades of experience as a prominent cancer researcher, to the University of Connecticut when he begins his job as vice president for health affairs and dean of the medical school on May 1.
He is now vice president for strategic programs at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, where he also heads the university's Comprehensive Cancer Center.
One of the big pulls prompting his job switch was the State of Connecticut's $864-million investment last year in the university's struggling health-sciences center, which will allow it to expand and renovate its hospital complex, build new outpatient clinics, hire about 100 faculty members, and expand medical- and dental-school enrollments by 30 percent.
The expansion, which is largely aimed at making Connecticut a leader in bioscience, will also help deal with a looming shortage of physicians in the state, as baby boomers retire and more people become eligible for coverage under health-care reform.
The "icing on the cake," Dr. Torti says, was a recently announced partnership between the university and Jackson Laboratory, which will make the health center a key player in the burgeoning field of genomic or individualized medicine.
The university and Connecticut's governor, Dannel P. Malloy, reached an agreement to bring the internationally renowned Jackson center, now based in Bar Harbor, Me., to the University of Connecticut's health-sciences center in Farmington, where it will work with scientists from the university.
"Medical education is changing very rapidly, and part of that is understanding the genetic basis of disease and the individual variation in that genetic basis," Dr. Torti says.
Once he earned an M.D. and a master's in public health from Harvard, Dr. Torti went on to accept a fellowship in oncology at Stanford's School of Medicine—a move prompted in part by his parents' battle with cancer.
Dr. Torti, who has designed and executed clinical trials in urologic cancer, is involved in personalized medicine, trying to decipher the individual genetic makeup of a person to understand which medical treatments work best and which might be toxic.
At Connecticut he will earn a base salary of $780,000, with a $150,000 annual performance incentive after the first year.
Susan Herbst, who became president of the University of Connecticut in June, says Dr. Torti's expertise will help the university live up to the state's expectations.
"Since ours is the only public health center in Connecticut, and given the gigantic state investment and what the governor and legislators expect with regard to economic growth, we need someone who understands how to work with the federal and state government and how to communicate what we do to legislators, to the governor's office, and to federal agencies like the NIH and FDA," she says.
The university's health-sciences center has struggled financially in recent years, in part because it had a relatively small patient base supporting the costs of residency training and charity care, Dr. Torti says. But recent trends in medicine work in its favor.
"What's happening in medicine is an enormous shift from taking care of patients on an inpatient basis to much more of reaching out and trying to keep them well," he says. "That size differential that was a disadvantage to UConn in the past will be neutralized," he says, as the health center treats many more people in its outpatient settings.
An even bigger advantage, he says, will be the expertise that the university and its biosciences partners will bring in getting medical breakthroughs to patients' bedsides.
"One of the lessons of being at the FDA," Dr. Torti says, "is that unless a small drug company or an academic medical center understands the pathway to regulatory approval, their good ideas just sit in the laboratory."