Sixty years ago, Roper Hospital’s top floor probably looked a little like a zoo.

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Roper St. Francis

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That’s because there were caged animals up there back then — sequestered from the patient population in the name of medical research.

“Up until about 1947, we were the teaching hospital for the Medical University. We did all kinds of research,” said Dr. Steven Shapiro, chief medical officer for the Roper St. Francis Healthcare system.

The animals are long gone now and it’s been decades since the hospital system invested any significant time or talent into medical research. But that’s about to change.

The hospital system just launched a new Clinical Biotechnology Research Institute — a long name for its new research department. A construction crew is busy carving out space on Roper Hospital’s fifth floor to house the new venture. It’s expected to open this fall.

“We’re going back to our roots,” Shapiro said.

The institute is not meant to mimic the Medical University of South Carolina’s research department. MUSC’s research portfolio approached $230 million during the 2013 fiscal year and much of that is funded by the federal government.

By contrast, Roper has invested only $1.5 million in its program and wants to court private research grants, instead of federal ones, from drug companies and medical device manufacturers seeking FDA approval who need to test their products in clinical trials.

“Most health care in America is done in settings like Roper St. Francis — private hospitals, as opposed to academic centers,” said Roper St. Francis Healthcare CEO David Dunlap. “I think we have seen that the device manufacturers and the pharmaceutical companies like the idea of being able to put this in a private, not-for-profit setting as opposed to an academic setting, which again, has strengths, but it’s not where most people receive their care.”

Roper’s new research efforts could even complement MUSC’s own, said MUSC President Ray Greenberg.

“I don’t view this as competition at all — our competition is in Durham, N.C. and Atlanta, Ga. — places with other prominent academic health centers,” Greenberg said. “Building more medical research in Charleston is a good thing for the institutions, for the people of the region and for the economy.”

It may also be good for Roper St. Francis Healthcare’s bottom line, Dunlap said.

“If it’s managed well, it can be not hugely profitable, but it could be a positive contribution to our margin.”

The institute is the brainchild of Dr. Jacobo Mintzer, a former MUSC researcher who jumped ship earlier this year with his team of 10 staff members, to start the research program at Roper St. Francis.

“We need to find a way to develop a model of research that will be patient-centered,” said Mintzer, who is still a teaching faculty member at MUSC. “The kind of research projects that will move forward are the kind of research projects that answer a need that a clinician has in the field.”

Charleston’s other hospital systems — Trident Health and East Cooper Medical Center, both private, for-profit facilities — do not house research departments.

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.