FARMINGTON, Conn. — Last fall, when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced his intention to have Jackson Laboratory build a genetics research lab on the University of Connecticut Health Center campus, the proposal moved swiftly, despite objections from some elected officials.
Nearly a year later, the pace on the project itself hasn’t slowed and officials say they expect the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine to be up and running on schedule, by late 2014. The Connecticut facility will be an expansion for Jackson, which is based in Bar Harbor, Maine.
“Things are 100 percent on track,” said Frank Torti, UConn Health Center’s new vice president of health affairs. “That is not a trivial statement: That has been a real challenge.”
Between demolishing some buildings and moving other facilities elsewhere, Torti said, “I can’t tell you the number of moving parts involved in getting the site ready.”
Construction on the 173,000-square-foot Jackson Lab is set to break ground on a 17-acre parcel early next year.
A handful of scientists have been hired and are either already working in temporary space at the health center or getting ready to do so. Yu-Hui Rogers, a genomics researcher from the J. Craig Venter Institute, was hired earlier this summer as site director.
Of the 30 faculty members that the laboratory will hire, Torti said, all will be integrated between Jackson and UConn. Jackson will pay the salaries of 20, and the other 10 will be jointly funded by UConn and Jackson. About half of the faculty members will be hired by the end of next year.
As for recruiting, Dr. Edison Liu, president and CEO of Jackson Laboratory, said he’s ahead of schedule. Word about the new facility has spread fast through the scientific community, he said, and all potential candidates so far have been people who have approached him.
By 2020, Jackson Laboratory in Connecticut will employ 300 people, including at least 90 senior scientists. By 2030, it will employ 600 people.
Economic realities
Liu, who is president of the international Human Genome Organization, has been with Jackson since January. He was founding executive director of the Genome Institute in Singapore, where he went in 2001 from the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Clinical Sciences, where he had been the scientific director.
Earlier this week Liu said it’s an exciting time for scientific research, but one fraught with challenges.
“The challenges are not scientific; there has never been a better time for the sciences and biology,” he said.
The challenges, he said, are financial.
“Pharma is shrinking worldwide; nobody’s investing in biotech,” said Liu, who was born in Hong Kong but has lived in the U.S. most of his life. “Does that herald the end of medicine and biology as economic drivers? By no means.”
In the long run, Liu said, investing in the sciences will pay off.
“Why is it that [Mayor Michael] Bloombergand his friends in New York are investing so much in bioengineering in New York City for the New York Genome Center?” he said. “Is it because they’re dreamy academics? No, they’re hard-nosed, business-minded individuals, and they know that unless you invest for the future, you’re going to drift away.”
He noted that The Scientist magazine this week ranked The Jackson Laboratory in Maine as the 11th best place in the U.S. to work in academic or noncommercial research. The nonprofit laboratory is the largest employer in Maine’s Hancock County, with 1,200 employees.
To bring Jackson to Connecticut, Malloy agreed to a $291 million loan to the research institution.
“To be frank with you, it’s very generous. and that generosity we’re going to pay back in spades,” Liu said.
Not everyone’s convinced. Sen. Andrew Roraback, R-Goshen, said the project will be “wonderful” in many ways for the state and for Farmington, but that it’s doubtful that the state will get a full return on its money. He was one of two people on the 10-member State Bond Commission to vote against the project in January.
“What I, as an elected official, had to do was make a determination as to whether the $291 million investment was worth what we were getting in return,” Roraback said. “We were investing nearly a million dollars for every job created, and we have to wait 10 years for those jobs to materialize. And I think it’s important to point out that only 30 percent of the jobs need to be high-level jobs.”
Torti said that kind of number-crunching is short-sighted.
“I would challenge the people who say there won’t be a substantial return on investment,” Torti said. “The returns are measured in years in terms of jobs and businesses that will interact with the growth that bioscience will develop.”
And not all the returns will be financial, he added.
“There is the potential of developing products together — drugs and approaches to cancer, diabetes and heart disease, any one of which will not only have an enormous financial return — but there will be a human return that is incalculable — tackling the biggest health problems of mankind.”
Malloy estimated that the construction of the laboratory could indirectly lead to 16,000 bioscience jobs. It’s a more conservative projection than the 250,000 jobs that Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick predicted in 2008 when he signed a $1 billion initiative to boost life sciences in that state. Four years into that 10-year-project, the actual figure so far is short of 9,000.
Personalized medicine
The work at the Farmington facility, Liu said, will focus on personalized medicine, which uses genomic analysis to tailor treatments to specific patients.
“What we’re going to do, and this is going to be one of the major initiatives in Connecticut and the rest of Jackson Labs, is to create those predictive models so that we can take the road map of your genome,” he said.
“What we’re really talking about is massive expansion of capabilities and scale,” he said, adding that most of the advances have happened since 1990 at a pace that no one in the field could have anticipated.
He offers the advances in treating diabetes as an example.
“Geneticists have tried to figure out why some people have diabetes and others don’t, and until now could only wave their hands,” he said. “But now we’ve discovered at least 60 genes that are associated with the potential causes of Type 2 diabetes. Every one of those components that contribute to the diabetic phenotypes is a potential target for manipulation.”
With cancer, he said, “we were just going blind.”
“You get a tumor, a pathologist cuts it open and says, ‘Well, this looks like this type and if it’s this type, it has this kind of behavior,’” Liu said. “It’s directly akin to the days of weather forecasting when meteorologists looked up to the sky and said, ‘Oh, clouds, that means there’s a chance of rain.’”
Now, as in weather prediction, he said, researchers can create and examine models of extremely complex systems and make a reliable assessment of a tumor’s growth or a patient’s susceptibility to an inheritable disease.
“I’ll be able to take your tumor and sequence it with this information, which is very complex,” Liu said.
Before genomic medicine, Liu said, diagnosing certain diseases was comparable to how pilots once flew planes solely by looking out the cockpit window. Now they have a panel of sensors that give them a better sense of the complex systems they’re flying through. Having access to a patient’s genome, he said, will do the same thing.
“Doctors will do that even more profoundly, looking at their panels of hundreds of dials and switches to get a more precise view of how to navigate and how to land and how to take off,” he said. “What we’re really talking about is a massive expansion of capabilities and scale.”
(c)2012 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)
Distributed by MCT Information Services