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University Of Missouri President Stakes The Future On $221 Million Health Research Facility

Jamie Hobbs
KCUR 89.3
Mun Choi took over leadership of the University of Missouri system in 2017.

No one can accuse University of Missouri President Mun Choi of lacking bold aspirations or high expectations for the newly launched NextGen Precision Health Initiative.

“It is the most important and the largest project in the history of the UM system,” he said recently on KCUR’s Up to Date. “This is going to be a game-changer when it comes to developing life-saving treatments.”

This summer, officials broke ground on the NextGen Precision Health Institute, a $221 million facility in Columbia that will be the centerpiece of a program to thrust MU’s four campuses into the forefront of health care advances.

The 268,000-square-foot, five-story building is expected to attract research funding, increase collaborations between university scientists and industry professionals and accelerate treatment breakthroughs in cancer, stroke, muscular dystrophy, autism, traumatic brain injuries and other conditions.

Credit University of Missouri
University of Missouri
The NextGen Precision Health Institute is scheduled to be completed by fall of 2021.

Other key goals are to create jobs and train the next generation of health care providers throughout Missouri.

The building will open in 2021 but the program is already getting underway, including at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“We’re going to make this very unique, based on the strengths that we have here at UMKC,” Choi told KCUR.  He said Kansas City clinicians, working alongside UMKC scientists and researchers, will be able to use artificial intelligence and data analytics to quickly detect diseases. They can then try to design solutions based on a personalized approach for each patient.

Among the examples Choi cited:

  • John Spertus, a Kansas City cardiologist and UMKC professor, and his medical school colleagues are transforming heart disease treatment by using big data to match patients with tailored approaches based on genetics, environmental influences and lifestyles. “Rather than taking a guess, it’d be a more pinpointed solution for that patient,” Choi said.
  • Holly Hagle, an assistant research professor at the UMKC Nursing School, and Rachel Winograd of UM-St. Louis, are helping slow the tide of overdose deaths through their research to educate, prevent and treat opioid victims.
  • Faculty at MU and the Missouri University of Science and Technology are collaborating with Veterans Administration researchers. They are developing wearable devices and technologies to protect soldiers from the concussions that can occur from a bomb blast and to signal whether a person is susceptible to traumatic brain injury. “Tremendous technologies,” Choi said of the brain injury innovations.

UMKC research center

While the central facility will be in Columbia, Choi said a “center of excellence for data analytics” will also be developed at UMKC. Details remain sketchy, and it’s not yet known whether it would require a new building or whether it would be “in the cloud,” meaning using a global network of servers.  

Choi said officials envision an investment of about $20 million to $25 million in that new center, with $5 million from the university system and the rest from philanthropic and industry partners. He hopes that partnership can launch by the fall 2020 semester.

During his interview, Choi suggested MU has come a long way since the campus in Columbia gained national attention for all the wrong reasons in 2015. At the time, it was rocked by protests and unrest over race relations, workplace benefits and troubled leadership.

Choi started as university president in March 2017. He is encouraged that freshman enrollment has increased in recent years, although it still hasn’t fully rebounded to the numbers from 2015.

He said the system is also seeing incremental increases in minority students, low-income students and other underrepresented groups.

There is one emerging idea that Choi rejects, and that’s the push to allow college athletes to earn money for the use of their names and images.

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” he said, adding that MU student-athletes are already provided significant scholarships, in some cases up to $50,000 to $60,000 a year.

He believes paying student-athletes would foster an unequal system where rich schools would just get richer in terms of the talent they could attract, undermining competition in college sports. Choi knows many people may disagree with him, but he says he’s also in good company in his opinion.

“The great majority of academic leaders,” he said, “feel the way that I do.”

University of Missouri President Mun Choi spoke with KCUR 89.3 on a recent edition of Up To Date.

KCUR is licensed to the University of Missouri Board of Curators and is an editorially independent community service of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Lynn Horsley is a freelance journalist and was a veteran reporter for The Kansas City Star. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley