Ventura veto leaves AHC in close quarters

Dan Haugen

Jeff Miller’s office is a cluttered mess. Every inch of workspace in his fifth-floor Cancer Center abode is buried under at least a half foot of folders, magazines and other papers. Then there are the boxes and piles building up on the floor.

He insists it’s an organizational problem – not space restraint – but he has no problem discussing at length the space crunch currently facing the Academic Health Center.

“Right now there are clearly individuals who are crammed for space,” the Medical School professor said. “Their productivity is being hindered.”

Besides placing constraints on current AHC faculty, Miller said, the shortage makes the center less appealing to potential researcher recruits.

“You can’t grow if there is no space to grow into,” he said.

The Translational Research Facility – a project Gov. Jesse Ventura vetoed from the state’s bonding bill last month – would alleviate a large portion of the AHC’s growing pains and provide an important forum for “intellectual synergy,” Miller said.

The $37 million complex would provide lab space for 33 new faculty members and would generate $60 million in grants annually, said Senior Vice President Frank Cerra, who heads the health center.

“The building would pay for itself in a very short period of time,” Cerra said.

But currently, the AHC does not have the financial means to fund the facility. The governor’s veto not only cost the University $24.5 million in Legislature-approved funds, it also prompted an anonymous donor to take back a $10 million contribution for the project.

All that remains earmarked for the building is $2.5 million in royalty funds from the AIDS drug Ziagen, which is manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline using a compound developed and patented by the University in the 1980s.

“We’re just going to have to wait and see,” Cerra said. “But there’s no question about it – we need space for translational research.”

Translational research is a broad term describing most medical research that attempts to translate basic science knowledge into applicable treatments.

“It could be a pill. It could be a device. It could be a new technique. Or it could be a new company that produces any of the three above,” Cerra said.

Although the Molecular and Cellular Biology Building will be used for the same purpose when it opens this fall, that building is already booked to capacity and more space is still needed, he said.

“This Molecular and Cellular Biology Building is replacement space. It’s not new space,” Cerra said. “We tore down three buildings to replace them with this space.”

With the future of the Translational Research Facility uncertain, Cerra said the AHC is forced to play what he calls “the sardine game,” making sure that every square foot of existing space is utilized to maximum efficiency.

The health center also plans to lease more than 27,000 square feet of space from Dinnaken Properties at 925 Delaware St. S.E. for five years beginning this fall. Although the Board of Regents has yet to approve the action, it was discussed with little objection at the regents’ Facilities Committee meeting Thursday. Rent would cost the health center more than $400,000 annually, and remodeling costs would average $200,000.

The Dinnaken space would be used to house staff who don’t need research space, Cerra said, so that they can free up on-campus space for research labs.

Meanwhile, outgoing University President Mark Yudof vowed Friday afternoon to keep fighting for the Translational Research Facility.

“It has to be built,” Yudof told Board of Regents members at their monthly meeting. “Let’s keep this on schedule.”

Yudof said the board should approve University funds for the building’s planning and design phase.

Once the University has committed more of its resources to the facility, he said, the school should reapproach the state Legislature and the anonymous donor.

“Given the overwhelming support in the House and Senate, I think there’s a good chance there will be a supplementary bonding bill,” Yudof said.

Ventura spokesman John Wodele said last month that the governor cut the project from the bonding bill as part of an effort to balance the state’s budget.

If the state changes its position, Yudof said, he believes the anonymous donor could reconsider his gift as well.

Dan Haugen welcomes comments at [email protected]