Grant prompts departmental cooperation

by Melanie Evans

The simple off-white metal box — a DNA sequencer — is easy to miss among the rows of flashing computers.
But at $125,000, it’s one of the Veterinary Teaching Hospital’s most state-of-the-art tools. And one of the most expensive.
The laboratory’s fourth sequencer, on order from the Perkin-Elmer Corporation, will arrive in St. Paul in a few weeks — paid for with money from state lawmakers’ first-ever grant for intercollegiate research within the Academic Health Center.
State legislators approved $2 million in the 1997 budget request for development and equipment purchases for five projects among the health center’s seven colleges.
Looking for resources to encourage cooperation between departments and foster research, administrators approached state lawmakers with 10 proposals and a request for $20 million dollars.
Legislators accepted the premise, but not the price. The health center received a commitment for one-tenth of their initial request.
The health center is “grateful” for the money it received, said College of Pharmacy Dean Marilyn Speedie, but the reduced sum required the schools to reprioritize.
“You use what you get as seed money,” Speedie said.
Dr. John Fetrow, the health center’s associate vice president for organizational development, said the grants were awarded to projects with a high potential for further development and the ability to attract further funding.
It is precisely that type of return on investment the DNA sequencer has produced, said Dr. Lawrence Schook, director of the Food Animal Biotechnology Center.
The sequencer, which is used to analyze genetic material, will be available for use by faculty members from the College of Veterinary Medicine, the Institute of Human Genetics, the Division of Epidemiology and the School of Public Health, Schook said.
The new machine formed the cornerstone of a successful grant application to the National Cancer Center. It also became the foundation for an agreement with Connecticut-based Perkin-Elmer to develop and test genetic diagnostic technology.
Dr. Philip McGlave, professor of medicine, is a member of a committee that received $300,000 to encourage the transition from experimental to clinical therapies.
Communication is key to moving basic sciences out of the laboratories and into patient practice, McGlave said.
That transition — called translational research — requires the most teamwork among researchers, yet is often overlooked for funding.
Increased federal regulation has extended the time and money needed to test potential medicines or therapies. Meanwhile, financial losses have cut into the health center’s available resources to fund research.
In the past, collaboration hasn’t been the University’s strongest suit.
“The University is such a huge place and people live in such different worlds,” McGlave said.
Although the $2 million from the state can’t fund entire proposals, it is a good source of seed money, McGlave said.
“The state initiative is very helpful as far as being a meaningful investment,” he said.