July 23, 2012

At intersection of science, dollars the Tortis see hope for UConn

Photo / Steve Laschever
Photo / Steve Laschever
Photo / Steve Laschever

Frank and Suzy Torti are newcomers to Connecticut but that's not stopping them from being among the state's top power couples.

The high school sweethearts who originally met in French class during their sophomore year at Northern Valley Regional High School at Old Tappan in New Jersey, have taken on major leadership and research roles at the University of Connecticut Health Center, which is in the midst of an $864 million transformation that aims to make it a hub for bioscience research and innovative health care.

Frank Torti will be leading that transformation as the new vice president for health affairs at the Health Center and the eighth dean of the UConn School of Medicine.

Suzy Torti is a professor in the UConn med school's Department of Molecular, Microbial, and Structural Biology, and the Center for Molecular Medicine, where she will continue to evolve her cancer research.

Together, the duo, who have been married for 41 years, will bring their long list of academic, professional, and scientific accomplishments to Farmington with the hopes of making UConn a world-class medical research center.

Their arrival has people around the country taking notice. "This is a double coup for Connecticut," said John D. McConnell, the CEO of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, who worked with the Tortis for three and half years when the power couple were at their previous jobs at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine. McConnell said both individuals are top notch researchers and administrators.

Frank Torti, for example, was responsible in the mid-1990s for turning Wake Forest's ailing, little-known cancer center into a nationally ranked health care facility that now sits on the US News & World Report's list of top cancer treatment centers. He also built Wake Forest's cancer biology department from the ground up, significantly increased the school's research funding and helped attract world-class doctors and researchers.

Meanwhile, Suzy Torti led an investigative team that shed new light on how iron metabolism intersects with cancer. She will be continuing that research at UConn.

"Her loss was as impactful as Frank's because she was such a great investigator," McConnell said.

Frank Torti said he was attracted to UConn largely because of the state's investment in Bioscience Connecticut and his goal is to make the medical center a place where people of all stripes go to "get the best care, and also the future cure." That's the theme he has been pushing since he arrived on campus in May.

The bioscience investment includes an $864 million down payment on the renovation of the UConn Health Center's existing research facilities, the creation of an additional 28,000 square feet of incubator space and the construction of a new patient tower and ambulatory care center.

It also includes the $1.1 billion Jackson Laboratory investment, which Torti sees as a game changer for making Connecticut a center for personalized medicine research.

In fact, Torti says one of his top priorities is to build a collaborative relationship between the Health Center and Jackson Lab, which will focus its research on genomics. It's a specialized field of medicine that involves gaining a better understanding of human genome sequences for various diseases like cancer, and tailoring treatments and medications to each person's unique genetic code.

"It's an extraordinary opportunity because it gives the faculty and staff the opportunity to completely re-craft how medicine will be delivered over the next 10 years," Frank Torti said.

Of course helping UConn advance medical research is only part of Frank Torti's role. He is also leading the UConn Health Center — which has experienced tremendous financial problems in recent years — through a time of major change.

Not only are the Health Center's facilities getting a major overhaul, but its operations are being impacted by a changing health care environment that is challenging hospitals across the country with reduced government reimbursements, higher quality standards and new payment models.

Torti said there are shrinking opportunities for financial growth and stability for hospitals, and research funding, most of which comes from the federal government, is becoming much more competitive.

It's a situation that poses a significant challenge.

Innovation and entrepreneurship is also important to the Tortis. While making advances in medical research is significant, turning those findings into an actual drug or device that helps patients is the ultimate goal, Frank Torti said. And his experience as the former chief scientist and acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration gives him a unique perspective to share with UConn faculty.

"I've seen outstanding drugs that failed FDA approval because a company wasn't knowledgeable about the approval process and they ran out of money before they got to the finish line," Frank Torti said. "I think I can really help this community because I understand these issues deeply and I can guide young investigators and small companies onto the right pathway of approval."

Frank and Suzy Torti also have a shared goal of trying to find a cure for cancer. It's one of the things that has driven their research over the years. They've also always made their work a top priority in life, putting in long hours to move their research forward.

"We always work on weekends but we enjoy what we are doing," Suzy Torti said.

When they do get away from the office, the Tortis enjoy gardening and hiking. They are mostly vegetable growers and have a penchant for tomatoes. While they haven't had much time to explore the many trails in Connecticut, they said it's on their list of things to do.

They also keep in touch with their two children Frank Jr. and Dorothea who are both doctors. Their son Frank also went to Harvard Business School and is now a venture capitalist in Palo Alto, Calif., while Dorothea is a dermatologist at Dartmouth.

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