Tuesday, October 7, 2003

Taft hails Genome Institute alliance

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ohio Governor Bob Taft is shown a mouse aorta by researcher Dr. William Noonan during a tour of the new University of Cincinnati Genome Research Institute in Reading Monday morning. Looking on (right) is the new UC President Dr. Nancy Zimpher.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
READING - In one room, cages house fat little mice genetically engineered to never lose their appetite.

In another, some 55,000 zebra fish will be studied in rack after rack of lunchbox-sized blue plastic tanks.

In yet another room, a high-tech brewery cooks up batches of bacterial soup to harvest proteins vital to biomedical research.

These are some of the tools that scientists at the University of Cincinnati's new Genome Research Institute will use to hunt for better treatments for obesity, heart disease and various types of cancer.

On Monday, Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and an auditorium filled with university administrators, business leaders and scientists gathered to celebrate the opening of one of the state's most significant advances in the growing field of biotechnology.

"With this opening, we're building the future for Cincinnati and the future for Ohio," Taft said. "This facility is an excellent example of the kind of collaboration we want to foster in Ohio through the Third Frontier project."

The Genome Research Institute takes up more than 360,000 square feet of research space in a knot of buildings visible near Galbraith Road along the north side of the Ronald Reagan Highway. It took more than two years and more than $76 million in renovations to get the complex ready for scientists to move in.

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Within a year, the center will house about 450 jobs, from high-profile researchers to computer software engineers and security guards. Within a decade or so, the discoveries those research teams make may be felt by people far beyond Greater Cincinnati.

This is clearly a place for brainiacs. Work areas carry labels such as "vector development," "bio-accelerator," "genetic engineering," and "cryo-preservation."

From computers that can crunch massive amounts of genetic data to the latest in mass spectrometry gear, few other research labs in the country can claim to be more sophisticated, said the Genome Research Institute's director, Dr. David Millhorn.

For example, the zebrafish facility is believed to be the fifth largest of its kind in the country.

Zebra fish are useful for medical research because they can be genetically engineered to be more likely to develop diseases that affect humans. If an experimental drug appears to useful and safe for the fish, then it can move on to tests in mammals and ultimately in people, Millhorn said.

Meanwhile, an entire building within the Genome Research Institute is dedicated to obesity research - a steadily increasing health threat facing Americans of all ages.

Obesity is believed to contribute to heart disease, diabetes and other diseases. Health problems aggravated or caused by obesity account for more than 300,000 deaths a year, according to federal estimates.

For several years, UC experts have delved into the connections between obesity, genetics and the brain. Some experts believe genetic variations may explain why appetite-control signals that flow from the gut to the brain work properly in some people but not in others.

The overweight mice being studied in Reading will play a key role in determining which medications, if any, may be useful in regulating appetite control in obese people, officials said.

With such powerful science aimed at such common problems, big money is at stake for Ohio, for UC and for a growing list of business interests linked to the new institute.

Not only has Procter & Gamble Pharmaceuticals provided millions worth of equipment to the center, it has based some of its own researchers inside the institute.

In launching the center, UC joins a trend of large universities working hand-in-hand with pharmaceutical companies to speed up the process of moving medical discoveries from the lab to the drugstore shelf.

"If you go back a couple of decades ago, most pharmaceutical research took place within the labs of the pharmaceutical companies," said John Smale, retired chairman of Procter & Gamble, who attended the opening.

"This facility is an example of the new way most research is taking place - in collaboration with universities around the world."

Other institute partners include Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, the U.S. Air Force through a research arm based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base; Newtown-based test-kit maker Meridian Bioscience Inc.; the Cleveland-based biotech software company Acero, and Wright State University.

These are the sorts of partnerships Taft says his Third Frontier project hopes to reproduce statewide in biotechnology, in advanced manufacturing and information sciences. On Nov. 4, a statewide ballot issue will ask voters to allow the state to issue $500 million in bonds over 10 years to continue the Third Frontier project.

While it may take years for people to see products flowing from work at the Genome Research Institute, some of the researchers based there already have made differences in some people's lives.

Among those speaking at Monday's dedication was Lois Vicars, a 38-year-old Loveland resident with an extreme case of diabetes. Her blood sugar levels could swing so quickly that she could not drive alone for fear of passing out.

But she says her life was changed April 8, 2002, when she become among the first in Cincinnati to get an experimental islet cell transplant. At the time, she was one of about five people worldwide able to give up insulin shots after a single islet cell transplant.

The transplant allowed her liver to produce insulin (normally made by the pancreas). That has allowed her to enjoy a far more normal life.

"Sleeping, driving and living daily life have become pleasant experiences for me," Vicars said.

Dr. Horacio Rilo, the researcher who prepared the islet cells for her transplant, was among the first to move into the new Reading facility.

About the institute

Location: Reading

Size: About 360,000 square feet on 23 acres

Function: To focus on the basic genetic roots of disease, especially heart disease, obesity, cancer and neurological disease

Employment: Up to 450 researchers and staff in the first year, with room set aside for future recruitment


E-mail tbonfield@enquirer.com

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