Tuesday, April 18, 2000

UC gains home for biotech research


Goal: To build region's economy

BY Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The University of Cincinnati plans to use a vacant pharmaceutical building in Reading as a key part of a wider effort to make biomedical research the foundation of Greater Cincinnati's new economy.

        UC has signed a memorandum of understanding to use the massive Marion Merrell Dow building, vacant since 1997. It will be the headquarters of a new biomedical research institute housing 20 to 40 scientists working in medical technology.

        News of the institute came Monday at a downtown conference that outlined the central role the university expects to play in regional economic growth.

        The new institute would be part of an overall plan to double the medical research activity at UC within six years. Academic and business leaders hope the Tristate's fledgling biotech industry will blossom into a vital part of the economy.

        But, as speakers pointed out Monday, getting there will require overcoming several challenges. The effort will involve more state funding for research than Ohio has ever made, sharp increases in private venture-capital investment, plus selling Greater Cincinnati to highly desired experts who can choose to live and work almost anywhere.

        “So often, we think of a university as a place to send our kids to get a degree. But behind those services is a vast research establishment,” said Michael Gallis, a consultant who recently wrote a far-reaching study of the Tristate's economic strengths and weaknesses.

        “This invisible university can serve as the foundation for the future of our economy and act like a huge mag net attracting new business to the region,” he said.

        Last year, Mr. Gallis challenged UC to be more of an economic driving force. UC has accepted that challenge, said university President Joseph Steger. Greater Cincinnati largely missed the high-tech wave of computer and telecommunication technology. Biomedical technology appears to be the next wave to catch, Dr. Steger said.

        “Cincinnati is on the bubble. Ohio is on the bubble,” Dr. Steger said. “But I think we can do it.”

        This fall, UC hopes to create a nonprofit research institute with an affiliated-but-separate board of trustees, much like Children's Hospital Medical Center and the Drake Center. The institute would be based in the former Marion Merrell Dow research center.

        According to the agreement signed last week, the center will be donated by Aventis S.A., a global pharmaceutical company created by several mergers since Marion Merrell Dow was acquired in 1995 by chemical giant Hoechst Group of Germany.

        A few months of legal work will be required before the property can be transferred, said Dr. Donald Harrison, senior vice president and provost for health affairs at UC.

        The labs cover nine interconnected buildings with more than 450,000 square feet of space.

        The new institute will focus on types of medical research that reflect the explosion of genetic information and computer technology available today to fight disease, Dr. Harrison said.

        These “core technologies” in turn would be used to advance treatments in four focus areas of medicine: cancer, cardiac care, neurological and behavioral studies, and perinatal care.

        The potential economic benefit of supporting expanded university research was detailed Monday by Carl Patton, president of Georgia State University and a key figure in the Georgia Research Alliance.

        Formed a decade ago, this alliance of state government, six universities and a network of business groups gets a lot of credit for fostering explosive economic growth in and around Atlanta.

        Since 1994, the state of Georgia poured more than $277 million into the alliance and continues to spend about $30 million a year, Dr. Patton said. That money, along with about $80 million in private matching funds, was used to endow 37 high-profile research positions and build more than 1 million square feet of laboratory space.

        Among the results: The research has spawned more than 50 start-up companies. Venture capital has tripled. And by 1997, the southeast region surpassed the northeast in terms of high-tech job creation, Dr. Patton said.

UC'S BIOTECH GOALS
        • Double research funding to about $240 million a year by 2006

        • Triple clinical trials conducted at UC by 2007

        • Recruit 260 new researchers to UC, including 60 at Children's Hospital Medical Center

        • This fall, begin converting a vacant research building in Reading for use as a biomedical research institute

        • Continue raising money for a $120 million expansion and renovation of UC's main College of Medicine building.

       



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