Four U research teams get bioscience grants

The research teams, which will partner with the Mayo Clinic, were awarded a collective total of $4 million.

Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

When University professor Robert Hebbel was working on blood-disease research, he developed a method to grow blood vessel cells from a simple blood sample as a leisurely side project. He did not expect it to have immediate potential, especially in heart disease research.

But because of his development, Hebbel is now part of four research teams awarded $4 million in grants Tuesday. Under an initiative by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics will pair the Mayo Clinic and the University to work in fields of groundbreaking research.

Partnering the two organizations will increase medical breakthroughs and boost Minnesota’s economy by attracting biotechnology business and investments, University and state officials said.

Hebbel’s group will try to find early ways to detect atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, he said. The other three projects will conduct research in the fields of prostate cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and obesity, University officials said.

Selected from 34 proposals and nine finalists, the groups will split the initial funding provided by the two institutions and the state.

Pawlenty established the partnership in April to foster collaborative research.

While funding hurdles still exist in fully realizing the partnership’s potential, University faculty and staff members said they are excited about what has already happened and what is to come.

“We are in the front group in this country to have the opportunity to make this stuff happen,” said Frank Cerra, senior vice president for the Academic Health Center.

Obtaining the two-year funding for these first four studies is the first milestone in the partnership, Cerra said. Each project will apply for a National Institutes of Health grant in the next year or so to continue the research after this initial funding

expires.

“The faculty from these two institutions working together will be able to accomplish things that each could not do as well alone,” he said. “These four projects exemplify that.”

Cerra said the partnership will probably need about $10 million to $15 million from the state in each of the next five years to sustain the partnership and to spark economic development and investment for other research.

Cerra said Pawlenty is a prominent proponent of increasing Minnesota’s bioscience reputation. Pawlenty is asking the Legislature for $20 million toward a Rochester bioscience research facility for the partnership.

“We thought it would be 40, but the need is only 20,” Cerra said of the facility’s price tag.

He said he expects the partnership to receive more state money during the Legislature’s 2005 biennium session.

A University economic impact statement, which Cerra said will be released in a few weeks, could increase interest in the area.

The statement is meant to show government and industry skeptics that significant investment in bioscience will pay off economically for the state and investors, he said.

“It’s like show and tell; you’ve got to show enough value on the table to get the investment,” he said. “They have to believe in the economic potential in order for this to happen.”

A moment of recognition

“This is kind of fun,” said Catherine Kotz, a food science professor who will conduct the University side of research regarding the brain’s role in obesity.

She said her work will involve answering why some people stay thin, while others tend to become obese. Her research will focus on activity levels and not nutrition.

Along with her Mayo Clinic cohorts, Kotz will explore the chemical processes in the brain that lead to some people’s resistance to weight gain. Learning about the differences in the brain types could lead to treatment for those who are at risk of becoming obese, she said.

Kotz said she was nervous before she heard the partnership’s decision.

“You try not to think about it, but it’s hard not to,” she said of the selection process. “It came as a completely unexpected but wonderful surprise.”

Professor Don Connelly, a cancer researcher whose project was chosen, said his work aims to develop prostate cancer diagnoses that could use blood or urine samples instead of invasive techniques.

“Prostate biopsies are not the funnest thing for patients,” Connelly said.

Connelly said it was “very gratifying” to have his research project selected.

“If you can combine the best brains and resources in the state, then it’s going to be for everyone’s benefit,” he said.