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Biomedical boom?

U hopes to gain funding for Minnesota Biomedical Research Program

By Rick Moore

Doris Taylor, Jasjit S. Ahluwalia, and Deborah E. Powell wait for a legislative hearing to commence.
Doris Taylor, director of the U's Center for Cardiovascular Repair; Jasjit S. Ahluwalia, executive director of the AHC Office of Clinical Research; and Medical School dean Deborah E. Powell were among about 100 U supporters to attend a legislative hearing on February 21. That hearing wound up being postponed a week, but a similar number of supporters turned out on February 28.

March 4, 2008

Two years ago the University introduced a novel proposal to the Minnesota State Legislature to expand research capacity in the biomedical sciences. It was an idea that garnered some strong support at the time, but failed to gain the financial green light.

This year the U is again renewing a request for its Minnesota Biomedical Research Program (MBRP), and more than 100 faculty, staff, students, and other U backers attended a legislative hearing last week to show their support for the plan.

The MBRP would authorize the construction of four new biomedical research buildings at the U over the next five years, creating space to conduct interdisciplinary research in areas such as heart disease; Alzheimer's disease; and breast, lung, colon, and prostate cancer; as well as attract world-class researchers.

The cost of the project is $292 million, and the University has proposed an 80/20-percent financing partnership between the state and the U. The state would contribute $233.6 million toward the University-issued bonds and the U would pay $58.4 million.

"This is one of the most exciting, visionary proposals you'll find anywhere in the United States today," U president Robert Bruininks told the House Capital Investment Committee on February 28. Bruininks was joined in testifying by Frank Cerra, senior vice president for health sciences; Richard Pfutzenreuter, the U's CFO and treasurer; Tim Mulcahy, vice president for research; Daniel J. Garry, director of the U's cardiovascular program; and representatives from the state's biomedical industry.

The University contingent included more than 100 supporters, including regents, UMAA members, and a busload of faculty, staff, and students.

Minnesota already has a rich history of investment in the biomedical sciences and a corresponding story of economic success in biomedical industries. This is the state that spawned Medtronic, St. Jude Medical, and Guidant, and Minnesota currently has more than 500 biomedical and related businesses employing about 250,000 people.

The buildings at a glance

Center for Magnetic Resonance Research (Project 1)

>> will enhance research in areas such as Alzheimer's disease, cancer, and neurobehavioral disorders; 56,000 total square feet; 10 new PIs; completed July 2010

Cancer Biomedical Research Building (Project 2)

>> will advance strengths in areas such as breast, lung, colon, and prostate cancer; 120,000 square feet; 40 new PIs; completed January 2012

Lillehei Biomedical Research Building (Project 3)

>> will provide translational research space to produce the next generation of ways to prevent and cure heart disease; 120,000 square feet; 40 new PIs; completed July 2012

Infectious Disease and Neuroscience Biomedical Research Building (Project 4)

>> will allow scientists to focus in emerging infections, stroke, and Alzheimer's disease; 90,000 square feet; 30 new PIs; completed July 2013

Bruininks pointed out that other states--and competing research universities--are in the process of making significant investments in biomedical research: California and the University of California-San Francisco are investing $1.5 billion; Wisconsin and UW-Madison, $750 million; New York, $250 million; and Oklahoma, $475 million.

"Other states, other countries have discovered that it's absolutely critical to invest in this area," he said.

If you build it, they will come

Attracting world-class researchers to the U is not a problem, Cerra told the committee. Nor is the productivity of researchers once they're here; the U's research portfolio is growing by a rate of almost 8 percent despite relatively flat federal funding--the main source of support for biomedical research.

"The problem now is we are out of space to recruit [researchers] into," Cerra said. And that can be a major concern. When a star researcher is weighing offers from competing institutions, the one that can guarantee the best physical environment, i.e., state-of-the-art laboratory space, can have a decided advantage.

The four new facilities would go a long way toward tipping the scales in the U's favor. Combined, they would be able to house about 120 principal investigators (PIs), and each PI comes part and parcel with a significant number of research assistants and staff. It is estimated that each of the buildings would attract approximately $25 million in new research dollars each year.

"This is critical to retaining Minnesota's position as a world leader in biotechnology," Cerra said.

And while some members of the committee expressed hesitation at any additional state spending in the midst of a state budget deficit, it can be argued that that's precisely the time for investment in research and development, a view held by Rep. Alice Hausman, the chair of the committee and chief author of the house bill containing the MBRP.

The project would create about 4,800 permanent new jobs, according to Cerra, and each new building would support 200 construction workers.

"We think this proposal is visionary, exciting, and respectful of the state's financial picture," added Bruininks.

To learn more about the Minnesota Biomedical Research Program or the U's 2008 Capital Request, visit the Office of Government and Community Relations Web site.

Related reading: Seeking an edge in the biomedical sciences (from M, spring 2007)