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Paula Grammas resigns as director of Ryan Institute at URI

Inaugural director at neuroscience institute may have been forced to resign in an internal dispute, according to sources

Photo by Nora Lewis, courtesy of URI Today news website

Paula Grammas, Ph.D., the inaugural executive director of the Ryan Institute for Neuroscience at URI, has resigned.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 1/6/20
The resignation of Paula Grammas, the inaugural executive director of the Ryan Institute for Neuroscience at URI, casts a shadow over the recent expansion of the academic research footprint as a result of $14.4 million in investments in five new innovation campuses.
What was the role, if any, played by URI President David Dooley in the resignation of Grammas? Will funding for the clinical trial now underway on Alzheimer’s move with Grammas, the principal investigator? How are the close-knit community of academic research neuroscientists in Rhode Island responding to the news of the Grammas resignation? When will URI issue a news release announcing the Grammas resignation? What will be the process for recruiting a new permanent executive director for the Ryan Institute?
Research on the human brain and how it works has been likened to be “the final frontier” in scientific exploration. The yet-to-be told story behind the resignation of Paula Grammas as the executive director of the Ryan Institute seems to suggest that money and politics and perhaps gender bias, rather than the pursuit of science and academic research excellence, may have influenced the outcome.
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The potential for influenza pandemics and the spread of diseases such as Dengue and Zika and malaria, all linked to the consequences of man-made climate change, demand that the work on immunology, vaccines, and new approaches for chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s not become captive of a political ideological football game.

KINGSTON – Paula Grammas, Ph.D., the executive director of the George and Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island since December of 2015, has resigned. Paul Larrat, Ph.D., the dean of the URI College of Pharmacy, has been named interim executive director.

Grammas' LInkedIn account has her leaving her position beginning in November of 2019. The transition occurred quietly, with little public notice.

The exact details of what caused Grammas to resign are unclear. Several sources indicated to ConvergenceRI that Grammas may have allegedly been forced to resign as the result of an internal management dispute with Peter Snyder, vice president of Research and Economic Development at URI. [ConvergenceRI has not yet been able to confirm the substance of that allegation, either from Grammas or from URI.]

Grammas could not be reached for comment. Efforts to reach the media contact for the Ryan Institute were unsuccessful. [The former media contact at the Ryan Institute, Tristan Davies, had left his job as of Nov. 15, 2019, according to a voicemail.]

The Grammas resignation casts a shadow during a time when URI’s research footprint has been expanding, with $14.4 million invested in five new innovation campuses since December of 2018, funded through a $20 million bond approved by voters in 2016. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Two more innovation campus awards announced.”]

The departure by Grammas marks the second departure of a high-ranking woman scientific researcher from URI in the last few months. In a separate, unrelated matter, Dr. Annie De Groot, the CEO and CSO and co-founder of EpiVax, resigned from the University of Rhode Island in December.

The loss of both Grammas and De Groot may be felt in the loss of research dollars from the URI research portfolio.

De Groot will now be affiliated with the University of Georgia, along with her colleague and research collaborator at EpiVax, Lenny Moise.

Working together, De Groot and Moise established a highly regarded program at the University of Rhode Island that garnered $35 million in research funding during the past 10 years.

“We are a highly productive, creative publication-generating team,” De Groot said. “We excel at writing grants and getting funding, and managing research programs. Our research focus is on T cell mediated enhancement or suppression of immune responses to vaccines and biologics [for humans and animals].”

Our joint publication portfolio in the past 10 years is 50 papers, De Groot continued. Separately, “Lenny has 85 publications and I have succeeded somehow in publishing more than 10 publications on average per year in the past 10 years,” she said. “I have more than 165 peer-reviewed papers.”

In the three days since her new position with the University of Georgia was posted on De Groot's LinkedIn account on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020, it has received more than 9,700 views, according to De Groot.

Investment in neuroscience
The Ryan Institute was created in 2013 with an initial $15 million donation from the family of Tom Ryan, the former chairman, president and CEO of CVS. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Ryan family donates $15 million to create URI neuroscience institute.”]

Grammas had been hired in 2015 as the inaugural executive director of the Ryan Institute, with much fanfare.

Under Grammas’s leadership, the Ryan Institute had received regulatory approval in January of 2019 to conduct a pioneering Phase I clinical trial that sought to attack Alzheimer’s disease by targeting inflammation in the brain’s blood vessels.

“Grammas is best known for her pioneering research into the role that blood vessels and inflammation play in the development of Alzheimer’s disease,” according to a story posted on the Ryan Institute website, describing the background research that led to the clinical trial. “In 2001, her laboratory demonstrated that microvessels in the Alzheimer’s brain produce toxins that cause brain cell death,” the story continued. “In related work, she showed that the protein thrombin drives this pathology. Based on this research, her upcoming Phase I trial will test a novel approach to treating Alzheimer’s disease by inhibiting thrombin to reduce the expression of toxic proteins and improve cognitive performance. It will be the first study to test the cerebral vasculature as a target for Alzheimer’s therapy.”

[In the wake of Grammas’ resignation, one of the questions that will need to be answered is whether or not the funding underwriting the clinical trial will travel with Grammas, because she is the principal investigator.]

Grammas had also played a key role in recruiting MindImmune to locate its startup drug development research enterprise at URI with the Ryan Institute. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “To go where no research enterprise has gone before in Rhode-Island.”]

As ConvergenceRI reported at the time, for Grammas, the new agreement with MindImmune was a groundbreaking partnership for URI and its recently launched neuroscience institute.

“It’s groundbreaking,” Grammas said in an interview. “It goes where no one has gone before. It really helps us jumpstart the recruitment of neuroscientists.”

In the world of Alzheimer’s research, Grammas continued, “Our search for causes and treatments has not been successful. There are no disease-modifying drugs. Alzheimer’s is a complex disorder, and we need to look at different mechanisms to really help to advance the field.”

The MOU, Grammas, exhibited the good will and good faith of the partners. “Everybody is happy with what we have going forward, with the areas of convergence and collaboration.”

Stellar research credentials
A recent story published on the Ryan Institute website described Grammas’s research accomplishments: “Dr. Grammas has been the principal investigator or co-investigator on more than $24 million in research grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Alzheimer’s Association, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, and other agencies and foundations. She has published more than 145 peer-reviewed research papers. She is a recipient of the Zenith Award from the Alzheimer’s Association in recognition of her contributions to Alzheimer’s research. In 2017, she was elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science Circle of Fellows [in recognition of her pioneering research into neurodegenerative conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease].”

Prior to becoming the executive director of the Ryan Institute, Grammas had been the executive director of the Garrison Institute on Aging at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and had served as director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Neuroscience. She earned a doctorate in pathology from Wayne State University, a master’s degree from New York Medical College, and a bachelor’s degree from Barnard College.

Grammas also currently serves as Chief Research Officer for Tribute Senior Living in Prospect, Texas.

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