On discovery zone

New life sciences center a beacon for research breakthroughs and economic growth

Photos by Douglas Levere, BA ’89
New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences (center of photo) is situated between Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute (left) and Roswell Park Cancer Institute

New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences (center of photo) is situated between Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute (left) and Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

It’s an important milestone in Buffalo’s transformation from a postindustrial, rust-belt city into a major hub for groundbreaking life sciences research and spin-off biotechnology industry.

On June 2, the University at Buffalo’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences—along with the adjacent Center for Genetics and Pharmacology of Roswell Park Cancer Institute (RPCI)—celebrated their grand opening. A major research center of UB, the Center of Excellence works in close collaboration with research partners RPCI and Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute (HWI).

Tours of the Center of Excellence quickly reveal the state-of-the-art laboratories, along with facilities that are being filled with collaborative research activity contributing to breakthroughs in science and health care. Moreover, the developments made at the center will subsequently be taken from the lab to the marketplace via an entrepreneurial route.

The four-story, 130,000-square-foot building that houses the Center of Excellence was constructed by New York State at a cost of $52 million. State funding for the center and its programs to date has totaled $89.4 million. In addition to $27.75 million in direct federal funding, the Center of Excellence has received $3.5 million in funding from the John R. Oishei Foundation and $1.5 million from the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation. Funding from the private sector has totaled approximately $60 million.

Along with the new HWI building, which opened in May 2005, the Center of Excellence and RPCI’s Center for Genetics and Pharmacology constitute the Buffalo Life Sciences Complex on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. New York State funding for construction of the RPCI and HWI buildings has totaled $70 million.

Here’s an example of the exciting science that is already taking place: The setting is a dangerous molecular struggle that can occur in the brain between rotenone, an environmental toxin; and the protein parkin, one of the most prevalent genetic factors in Parkinson’s disease. The scene is the microtubules that carry the neurotransmitter dopamine—the loss of which is the primary defect in Parkinson’s disease—to the area in the brain that controls movement. If the rotenone prevails, the microtubules are destroyed.

Two members of the center’s neurodegenerative team, Jian Feng and Zhen Yan, are tackling this intricate chain of events, as they tease apart the causes of Parkinson’s disease. At present, there is no known cure for this progressive malady, the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s disease. Yet protecting the microtubules involved in dopamine transport appears to be a promising path to therapies for Parkinson’s disease.

Recently, Feng and Yan, both associate professors of physiology and biophysics in the UB medical school, along with postdoctoral associate Qian Jian, reported identification of a chemical agent—L-AP4—that in studies with rats triggered events leading to microtubule stabilization. Only with time will it be known whether L-AP4 will be a promising drug target for treatment of the disease.

Knowledge about disease processes—as well as information about the human body, medical therapies and the interaction between the two, both successful and unsuccessful—has increased exponentially in recent years. Taking strategic steps to nurture life sciences research and those who conduct it magnifies the chances of developing more effective ways to prevent and treat disease.

Region’s propensity for science

As one of the people who have worked hard for the past five years to fast-track creation of a biotech industry in Buffalo Niagara, Bruce A. Holm likes to point to the region’s impressive history of scientific discovery.

Researchers at work

Such medical innovations as the PSA test for prostate cancer, widely used photodynamic therapy for skin cancer, interferon therapy for multiple sclerosis and prenatal lung therapies were each pioneered by scientists from Buffalo Niagara’s leading research institutions.

The problem is, Holm notes, most of these discoveries were not commercialized in Buffalo; therefore, precious few of the products’ spin-off economic benefits—new companies, new jobs, new wealth—accrued to Buffalo.

“These medical devices changed standards of care around the world, but they did not stay in Buffalo to create businesses and jobs,” says Holm, UB senior vice provost and executive director of the Center of Excellence.

“The Center of Excellence represents a concentrated effort to keep new medical breakthroughs and technologies in Buffalo Niagara,” Holm says. “We want to develop a large pipeline of medical treatments and devices coming out of the region.”

Creation of the Center of Excellence—and the more than $200 million invested in its development—is “an absolutely incredible step” toward establishing a biotech hub in Buffalo Niagara, according to Mary Walshok, an expert on the regional development of technology-based economies. As associate vice chancellor at the University of California, San Diego, Walshok played a major role in development of university-industry partnerships that led to the creation of San Diego’s extremely successful biotech industry.

“These kinds of centers have the most advanced technology, which helps in the recruitment of the best scientists competing for the big grants—so there’s a lot of money coming in—and they bring with them graduate students and postdoctoral students who end up starting companies or working in spin-off companies,” Walshok says.

“It’s important for a region to have these hubs of intellectual activity, not just because they’re a source of invention and innovation that create new products, companies and jobs, but also because their presence in a community brings in all kinds of talent,” she adds. “It creates an environment that is very attractive to scientists and entrepreneurs from the outside who bring in lots of money.”

Potential for job growth

Already, an estimated 4,000 life sciences jobs have been created or retained since 2001 when New York Gov. George E. Pataki announced his desire to create the Center of Excellence, according to BuffLink, one of the organizations facilitating the growth of biotech in Buffalo Niagara. These jobs include more than 1,200 new scientists, faculty and support staff hired by UB and RPCI, as well as new and retained life sciences jobs in the private sector—achieved mainly through expansion at local biotech companies.

Jian Feng, a member of the center’s neurodegenerative team

Zhen Yan, a member of the center’s neurodegenerative team, is researching the causes of Parkinson’s disease.

The Center of Excellence is involved in aggressive recruitment of talented “entrepreneurial” scientists, Holm says. A handful of important hires were made prior to the building’s opening; an additional 20 researchers and their staffs will be recruited to the Center of Excellence. At capacity, the center will hold more than 200 researchers, including current UB scientists affiliated with the center.

Scientist Steven Gill, for example, was recruited to the Center of Excellence in 2005 from the Institute for Genomics Research in Rockville, Maryland. Gill was attracted to the center’s research environment, which encourages collaboration among scientists who work in a range of disciplines, including chemistry, tissue engineering, nanotechnology, genomics and proteomics.

“These types of environments stimulate the emergence of new ideas and novel approaches,” says Gill, UB associate professor of oral biology who is working to identify bacterial genes associated with human infectious diseases. “Bringing these disciplines together under one roof facilitates development of new biotechnological or therapeutic tools, from initial concept to experimental testing to manufacturing. The concept of the center is not the typical university model,” he adds. “There are examples of other research institutes that have used a similar model and have been extremely successful.”

To assist researchers like Gill, a half dozen technology and commercialization organizations, such as Buffalo BioSciences, will reside in the Center of Excellence. Their presence in the center, says Holm, is a unique draw when recruiting researchers and will help accelerate the spin-off of technologies and treatments produced by the center’s scientists.

In working with Buffalo BioSciences’ associates, the center’s researchers can access a combined 70 years of experience in managing life sciences companies, according to Vic Nole, who cofounded Buffalo BioSciences in 2005. The company’s four partners each have deep roots in Buffalo Niagara and are committed to development of the region’s biotech industry, explains Nole, the former president of Invitrogen Corporation’s cell-culture products division.

“We have a model for the commercialization of good technologies that we’ve applied very successfully in the private sector,” Nole says. “We can help researchers identify promising technologies and products, understand what it takes to get them market-ready, and then help place them in the market.”

The role of start-up companies

According to Holm, the Center of Excellence intends to quickly establish a national track record of success by continually spinning off small start-up companies and products while working toward the bigger, highly lucrative discovery or venture. Several new start-ups already have been produced by the Center of Excellence, including Holm’s Pneuma Partners, which is producing drugs for respiratory illness; and Empire Genomics, which provides testing for genetic abnormalities and was developed by Norma Nowak, director of science and technology at the Center of Excellence.

“While we’re working on start-ups with small markets of $10 million to $20 million a year, which is not inconsequential but not huge, we’re also working on projects that may have hundreds of millions of dollars per year worth of impact on the local economy,” Holm says. “The center has been aggressively approaching both types of projects.”

The multidisciplinary research that is a hallmark of the UB 2020 strategic planning process is reflected in the Center of Excellence’s initial occupancy plan and in the dozen research teams that include a mix of scientists from several UB decanal areas.

These researchers represent UB’s College of Arts and Sciences, School of Dental Medicine, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and School of Public Health and Health Professions. They include some of UB’s most recent faculty hires, as well as seasoned veterans whose research is world renowned.

The Center of Excellence also will be the home of the Hunter James Kelly Research Institute, focusing on research into Krabbe’s disease—the fatal nervous system disorder that afflicted the late son of former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly and his wife, Jill—and related disorders.

All research taking place at the center will be aided by the immense computational power of UB’s Center for Computational Research (CCR), one of the nation’s largest academic supercomputing centers, capable of performing 22 trillion operations per second. CCR is being relocated to the Center of Excellence from the North Campus.

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