West Virginia University is, undoubtedly, a game-changer in discovering treatments and preventative care for some of the most chronic diseases plaguing the Mountain State. Part of the activator for such innovation is made possible through funds from the National Institutes of Health, the lead agency of the federal government responsible for biomedical and public health research.

The NIH’s impact on WVU and West Virginia was detailed in a report from United Medical Research and presented at Capitol Hill in late 2023. While the NIH’s primary mission is to improve health, its investment in rural states like West Virginia delivers a direct economic impact. According to the report, “How Rural States Benefit from Strong NIH Funding,” every $1 in NIH funding equates to $2.30 in rural state economic activity. In West Virginia, $549 million of new economic activity, along with more than 3,600 jobs, was generated between 2016 and 2022.

“Importantly, these jobs are primarily in sectors related to healthcare and technology, which helps in developing the state’s workforce and generating long-lasting impact on the economy,” said Ming Lei, senior associate vice president for research and graduate education at WVU Health Sciences.

NIH is the largest single public funder of biomedical research in the world, and WVU receives the largest share of awards in the state. The University was awarded a total of $206 million between fiscal years 2016 and 2022 with various degrees of jumps in funding. The largest occurred when the 2020 allotment of $29.4 million vaulted to $44.8 million in 2021. In fiscal year 2022, allocations topped $46.3 million, a marked increase of nearly two-and-a-half times from the fiscal year 2016 share of more than $16.7 million.

“Thanks to the advocacy by local, state and national representatives for continued NIH and other federal funding, WVU is a leader in discovering and creating solutions to the diseases and health disparities that plague our state's citizens and those around the world,” said Dr. Clay Marsh, chancellor and executive dean for Health Sciences. “We appreciate the belief in our mission to improve health and well-being and in our dedicated researchers working toward a better West Virginia.”

Lei said a targeted increase of NIH funding in rural states like West Virginia is needed to bend the curve of urban-rural health disparity and to support NIH’s mission to “optimize health and prevent or reduce illness for all people.”

man and woman using medical instruments

Drs. Bracley Thuro and Ami Patel work with the EyeSi Simulator, which allows trainees to practice surgical procedures such as cataract and retina surgery.


In West Virginia, instances of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease in adults are No. 1 in the nation. The state also ranks second lowest for life expectancy, has the highest rate of cancer deaths and is fourth highest for infant mortality.

To address this, the NIH has provided funding to the WVU School of Pharmacy, which in 2023 was awarded a second $11.2 million National Institute of General Medical Sciences IDeA Program grant for the Tumor Microenvironment Center of Biomedical Research Excellence. The Center is a collaborative effort among researchers in the School of Pharmacy, School of Medicine, and Cancer Institute to investigate how tumors interact with hosts and potential treatments.

“Federal funding of this magnitude specifically devoted to focus on cancer research within West Virginia meets a critical need within the state,” said Paul Lockman, senior associate dean in the School of Pharmacy and principal investigator of the study. head and neck, breast and brain cancers.

With the latest NIH grant, the team hopes to develop new probes for tumor diagnosis and identify better ways to prevent and treat melanoma, pancreatic and bladder cancers. Additionally, it will focus on improving treatments for leukemia and other blood cancers.

The first round of funding helped establish the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence and gave junior scientists opportunities to explore novel approaches to treating blood, head and neck, breast, and brain cancers. With the latest NIH grant, the team hopes to develop new probes for tumor diagnosis and identify better ways to prevent and treat melanoma, pancreatic and bladder cancers. Additionally, it will focus on improving treatments for leukemia and other blood cancers.

Man in labcoat, glasses, with microscope

Physiology student Elijah Smith conducts research in Eric Horstick's Lab for the Summer Undergraduate Vision Research Fellowship Program.


Combined funding from the NIGMS and National Eye Institute – both part of NIH – is helping WVU scientists develop innovative ways to prevent, treat, and slow the progression of vision problems that are currently incurable. With an $11 million NIGMS IDeA program grant, WVU is just the second university in the country to receive funding for a Center of Biomedical Research Excellence in Visual Sciences.

The project brings together clinicians and scientists from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine and the WVU Eye Institute to determine the reasons for visual disparity and find treatments for blinding eye diseases. This is in addition to research funding of approximately $19 million over the last 10 years to WVU from the NEI.

West Virginia has the second-highest rate of visual disability in the United States, an incidence projected to double by 2050.

“Visual disability is a terrifying prospect,” said Visvanathan Ramamurthy, chair of biochemistry and molecular medicine and vice-chair of ophthalmology and visual sciences. “Visually impaired individuals suffer from higher rates of falls, social isolation, and depression, and have less earning power and difficulty holding jobs. Our long-term goal is to eliminate or reduce this health burden by understanding the biological mechanisms that underlie vision in health and disease.”

Three women in labcoats work in lab

Roseanne Santos, teaching associate professor in physiology, pharmacology and toxicology, works with students Alexandria Moran and Taylor Brown through the Research Apprenticeship Program of the Office of Undergraduate Research.


Additionally, WVU has benefited from NIH dollars to fund studies in toxicology and how it contributes to disease, as well as research on COVID, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and opioid use disorder, among others.

A $1.7 million NIH grant supported the construction of a second, larger WVU Inhalation Facility in 2017. It gives researchers space to model and monitor, in real time, any respirable particles humans are exposed to and determine whether the particles pose a benefit or hazard.

“The larger Inhalation Facility provides expanded research and training opportunities for graduate students in programs from all three WVU campuses in Morgantown,” said Tim Nurkiewicz, E.J. Van Liere Medicine Professor and chair of the Department of Physiology, Pharmacology and Toxicology.

“It creates a focal point for scientists from WVU, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and local industries with similar research interests to operate in. It also creates a source of information to educate the public on the hazards of inhalation exposures to a variety of things that we are constantly exposed to. This includes not only particles and gases but also bacteria and viruses.”

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the WVU Center for Inhalation Toxicology answered the call to come up with an alternative face covering for health officials in the wake of a diminishing supply of PPE. With the Inhalation Facility as the testing site, Nurkiewicz and a team developed masks that are as effective at blocking coronavirus as N95s. The design was sent on to the West Virginia National Guard, which produced the masks. Pattern files were later made available free to the public.

Recognizing the Inhalation Facility’s unique infrastructure and training opportunities to the region, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences awarded Nurkiewicz and a team across WVU and NIOSH a training grant.

“This program will train the next generation of toxicologists with an interdisciplinary curriculum focused on the physiologic responses of inhalation exposures,” said Nurkiewicz, who also serves as director of both the Center for Inhalation Toxicology and the Systems Toxicology Training Program.

“A key element of this program is to serve the state of West Virginia to improve air quality and health.”

Two women in lab coats, look at each other, holding containers

Biology major Madison Sigler, of Smithsburg, Md.; and biochemistry major Laura Richardson, of Parkersburg, W.Va., store reagents to be used for evaluating Appalachian head and neck cancer cell cultures.


The future of treating Alzheimer’s disease and PTSD could evolve from research led by Bernard Schreurs, professor in the WVU Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute’s Department of Neuroscience and director of the West Virginia Alzheimer’s Disease Registry. His current work, funded by three NIH grants totaling $6.3 million, focuses on the mechanisms behind the memory-related diseases with hopes of finding ways to prevent or treat them.

With both diabetes and heart disease affecting a large population of West Virginians, John Hollander, professor and senior assistant dean for research and graduate education in the School of Medicine’s Department of Human Performance, is leading a study to determine why people with type 2 diabetes commonly develop heart disease.

“It’s a very important issue as it relates to our local Appalachian population, where diabetes rates are one of the worst in the country,” Hollander said. “Diabetic patients tend to either die of or have a complication related to the cardiovascular system, including the heart.”

The NIGMS IDeA Program also supports the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute at WVU, an academic home and catalyst for research targeting health areas including addiction and resulting emerging epidemics, cancers, cardiovascular disease and chronic lung disease.

The institute offers participating faculty and clinicians across the state resources such as biostatistics support, clinical data, pre-award support and access to funding mechanisms and community networks. In 2022, WVCTSI received $20 million in funding renewal to support research aimed at improving health outcomes in West Virginia.

More recently, WVCTSI was awarded more than $10 million to lead a national clinical trials resource center. Launched in fall 2023, the IDeA State Consortium for Clinical Research Resource Center will enhance training and resources to ultimately increase the number of clinical trials in underserved populations in 23 states and Puerto Rico.

“It is abundantly clear that NIH funding, particularly that through the IDeA Program, has been a game-changer for WVU’s continuous effort of building research infrastructure, advancing science, and developing a workforce for sustained economic growth,” Lei said. “Going forward, stronger NIH funding will play a critical role in helping us reach our goal of transforming WVU into a forward-looking research university that leads in innovation and delivers solutions for West Virginians.”