Sunday, July 02, 2000

Tristate riding genome wave

Business, academia look for big payoff

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Greater Cincinnati academic and business leaders have known for several years that the Human Genome Project would spark a biotech revolution.

        Yet news last week that scientists have substantially decoded the basic blueprint of the human body still had the power to amaze. Amid lofty hopes of cures for cancer, heart disease, cystic fibrosis and many other afflictions, President Clinton called it a “day for the ages.”

March 1998: Children's Hospital Medical Center became one of seven centers named by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to speed up efforts to make new drugs available for cystic fibrosis, led by Dr. Robert Wilmott, director of pulmonary medicine, and genetic researcher Dr. Jeffrey Whitsett. In 1994, researchers at Children's Hospital and the University of Alabama at Birmingham proved they can cure mice of CF using genetic engineering techniques. But the pre-birth techniques have been considered too controversial for use in humans.
May 1999: UC received a five-year, $5.9 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to lead a national hunt for a genetic link to lung cancer. A team led by Dr. Marshall Anderson, director of UC's Department of Environmental Health, is building a medical database of families that have suffered multiple cases of lung cancer. The goal is to collect tissue samples then use the data from the Human Genome Project to identify genetic mutations that make people more susceptible to cancer from smoking.
November 1999: Dr. Stephen Liggett and Dr. Dennis McGraw reported developing an asthma-resistant mouse, which can breathe massive amounts of smog without suffering asthma attacks.
December 1999: The University of Cincinnati College of Medicine received a four-year, $2 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to accelerate its genetic and molecular research. With matching internal funds, UC plans to pump $5 million into equipment and staff for three new “core laboratories.”
December 1999: New York Times features UC heart-failure research, also led by Dr. Liggett, as part of an article about using genetic information to develop patient-specific medicine. They hope to identify genetic factors that make some people respond well to treatment while others don't.
January 2000: The University of Cincinnati College of Medicine received a five-year, $2.3 million grant to breed a line of mice that can mimic human development of cancers of the colon and pancreas. UC's grant is part of a 19-center Mouse Models of Human Cancers Consortium formed by the National Cancer Institute to share data to accelerate basic cancer research.
        But, taxpayers and investors, take note: The price tag for following through on one of the greatest advances in medical history won't be cheap.

        In Cincinnati alone, tens of millions of dollars have been committed to building up biotech capabilities. Hundreds of millions more will be needed.

        “All these developments point out what we've been trying to say for the last several years,” said Dr. Donald Harrison, senior vice president and provost of health affairs at the University of Cincinnati. “To me, this is the frontier of where the entire field of life sciences is going. I want the University of Cincinnati to be on the front edge of the wave.”

        To play any kind of leading role in turning the hope of genetics-based medicine into reality, Greater Cincinnati needs to double its volume of basic medical research, vastly expand seed money for start-up ventures and strive in several ways to build an entrepreneurial culture for the region, according to a report released last fall by a recently formed Life Science Task Force.

        That task force includes UC, Procter & Gamble Pharmaceuticals Inc., the Children's Hospital Research Foundation, Meridian Diagnostics, Frost & Jacobs law firm, the Institute for Advanced Medical Sciences, the Edison Biotechnology Center and the Louisville Medical Center Development Corp.

        Business and academia are working together on this because all involved see the potential, in terms of improving life and in terms of making money. Health care already drives about one-seventh of the U.S. economy, and many realize that the genome project will leave few aspects of medicine untouched.

        “The human genome project dramatically expands the range of options available to companies like ours in coming months and years. That's exciting, because we have more ways to advance health care, for consumers and for our business,” said Procter & Gamble spokesman Don Tassone.

        In fact, the cooperative efforts discussed so far reach well beyond Greater Cincinnati. UC already has started working with Ohio State University in Columbus and Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland to develop joint funding proposals. Plans call for submitting a written plan to the governor and state economic development officials by Aug. 1 for consideration in the next biennial budget.

        Cooperation is key because competition is intense for federal grants, support from major foundations and deals with multinational pharmaceutical companies.

- Tristate riding genome wave
    Genome's already changing education

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