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Building momentum

Brick by brick, the U is moving toward its goal of becoming one of the top three public research universities in the world

It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and things are hopping at the McGuire Translational Research Facility.

In one of the 30 offices lining the south side of the four-story building, a faculty member in the Division of Infectious Diseases and International Medicine is tapping intently at a keyboard. Just down the hall, through doors that open to a long, day-lit laboratory, a student pipettes liquid into a rack full of tubes, preparing to grow plasmids as part of a study on developing gene therapies for brain cancer. At a table looking out over the four-story atrium, three graduate students—perhaps from the Stem Cell Institute or the orphan drug program—eat late lunches from plastic containers. Upstairs and down, dozens of others are working on solutions to a spectrum of health problems: TB, HIV, malaria, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injury.

This 96,000-square-foot facility, which opened in June 2005 just north of the site of the future Gopher football stadium, is the latest addition to what is becoming a major focal point for biomedical research at the University of Minnesota. By 2009 it will be joined by another translational research building. And there are hopes for several more facilities to provide much-needed space to retain and attract top-ranked scientists as the University works to become one of the top three public research universities in the world.

“The faculties in the six schools of the Academic Health Center are remarkably productive and innovative in their research, which has enabled us to attract additional colleagues and students to the University,” says Frank Cerra, M.D., senior vice president for health sciences. “These new facilities are necessary to allow for growth in the productivity of our neuroscientists; growth in cardiovascular, infectious disease, and immunology research; as well as additional breakthroughs in cancer research. Successful recruitment of new faculty, and the fellows and researchers they bring with them, is directly tied to the facilities available to provide them work space.”

Open spaces in the McGuire Translational Research Facility allow for collaboration among scientists.

Growing room

This emerging biomedical research district got its start about a decade ago with a search for space for some really big, really strong magnets—the brawn behind two sophisticated technologies—magnetic resonance imaging and magnetic resonance spectroscopy—that allow scientists to visualize the interior of the human body. In 1998, the magnets and the researchers who use them to perform groundbreaking studies in brain mapping and cancer detection moved into a new building: the Center for Magnetic Resonance Research, on the north-eastern edge of the East Bank campus. A short shuttle ride from the cluster of biomedical buildings near the Mississippi River, the new site was accessible to Academic Health Center faculty, yet had plenty of growing room.

The new CMRR joined the Lions Research Building, which provides laboratory space for the Departments of Ophthalmology, Otolaryngology, and Neurosurgery and supports research in areas including immunology, optic nerve rescue, and macular degeneration.

A research leap

As construction moved forward in this nascent research park, a building project of another sort was also under way—one that would reverberate throughout the nation’s, and the University’s, biomedical research community: the construction of a map of the human genome. Both the process and the product of the U.S. Human Genome Project, which was completed in 2003, opened the door to entirely new ways of answering questions. And—science being science—to entirely new ways of asking them, too.

Researchers who could make the most of the new information, techniques, and technologies that emerged were in high demand. Institutions that could provide the sophisticated facilities these researchers needed were able to attract them. And once they did, they found it easier to attract their colleagues, too, creating clusters of experts with the potential to generate new knowledge and new approaches to preventing, treating, and curing diseases.

New research space in the McGuire Translational Research Facility helped attract Mark Schleiss, M.D., an internationally recognized expert in cytomegalovirus, to the University.

Know-how

With its decades-long history of pioneering biomedical research, the University of Minnesota had the know-how to be a leader in this emerging environment.

And it was motivated. World-class researchers attract top students and grants, bolstering reputation and productivity. They generate research-based businesses—the U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that 38.1 jobs are created for every $1 million in university research carried out in Minnesota. And they develop life-saving therapies and technologies for the surrounding community and region.

Using these strengths as a foundation, the University set out to develop the state-of-the-art research facilities needed to attract and retain leaders in biomedical research. And it’s working, says Charles Moldow, M.D., associate dean for research in the Medical School. Leaders lured here by the new McGuire TRF, says Moldow, include Mark Schleiss, M.D., an internationally recognized expert in cytomegalovirus, and Meri Firpo, Ph.D., a renowned stem cell researcher from California working on treatments for diabetes.

“That could not have happened without space,” Moldow says.

Need for infrastructure

When the University set its sights last year on becoming one of the top three public research universities in the world, it was clear that biomedical research would be a big part of the picture. That meant a need for even more sophisticated lab space to retain the leading researchers already here and to bring in the hundreds more needed.

“Under President Bruininks’s strategic positioning initiative, we need to recruit a large number of new faculty,” says Medical School Dean Deborah Powell, M.D. And that, Powell says, means investing in them. “Faculty need infrastructure—buildings and equipment and support for their lab programs—to get their programs established here.”

Last spring, the Minnesota legislature got a start on meeting those needs when it approved $40 million in state funding to help pay two-thirds of the cost for a new medical biosciences building, to be constructed adjacent to the McGuire TRF. Slated to open in 2009, the facility will add some 105,000 square feet of translational research space, conference rooms, and offices for up to 40 researchers and their staff, and is expected to bring in $15 million to $20 million per year in research funding.

Need for innovation

As helpful as the new building will be, it clearly can’t accommodate the 200 new faculty and 600 new research support staff needed to keep Minnesota a world player in such key research areas as cancer, neuroscience, and infectious disease. University planners estimate that an expansion of that magnitude will take at least four more buildings.

And that, says Richard Pfutzenreuter, University vice president and chief financial officer, will take innovation. Normally, major capital projects are funded by the legislature one by one. But because of the high cost of biomedical research facilities—$60 million-plus compared with $5 million for typical bonding projects—and the
need to define future infrastructure for prospective faculty, that approach doesn’t work so well in this instance, Pfutzenreuter says.

“To invest in biomedical sciences, we’ve got to hire faculty, but you can’t really begin to recruit and hire those people if you don’t have a building for them to move into. It’s kind of a Catch-22—you wait because you’re not sure if you have a building, and then you’re always behind, he says. “In considering our aspiration to be one of the top three public research universities, the question I wrestled with is, Is that going to take 25 or 30 years because of process at the Capitol? How can we think differently?”

‘Come to Minnesota’

Pfutzenreuter’s answer, presented by the University last year to the Minnesota legislature, was a request to create a Minnesota Biomedical Sciences Research Facilities Authority. This nine-member state authority would have been authorized to allocate $330 million in state bonding toward building five new biomedical research facilities over the next 10 years, each holding 40 faculty members and their laboratory staff.

“[This] provides us with the ability to go to important faculty around the country and say, ‘Come to Minnesota. Look, we have this facility,’” Pfutzenreuter says.

The proposal received strong support, says Marty McDonough, assistant director of state relations for the University, but failed to survive the intense days at the end of the legislative session. Undaunted, the University plans to bring the proposal back to the legislature next year. The 2007 proposal asks for $279 million in state bonding for four buildings, recognizing the first building as a down payment on the facilities investment. The University would then seek another $31 million in private donations to cover the total cost of construction.

If it passes muster, Powell says, the proposal could make a huge difference in the University’s ability to recruit the researchers it needs to reach its top-three goal.

With groundbreaking for the new building slated for early 2007, Powell is focused on the future: “If we get the other four there, we will have a true research complex, which will be wonderful for scientific interactions.”  

By Mary Hoff

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