BANGOR, Maine — Nearly four years after it was introduced to the public, the Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health has a home of its own. At a well-attended open house celebration on Friday morning, officials cut the ribbon to a newly refurbished facility at the end of Sylvan Road that will serve as the research institute’s home for the near future.
Announced in January 2005 as a collaboration among Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, the University of Maine and The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, the institute promises to bring scientists together with clinicians to provide research-based treatments to patients with cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other conditions. This so-called “translational” scientific environment is key to attracting research funding from primary sources such as the National Institutes of Health.
The Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health is an affiliate of Brewer-based Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems. For the past four years, scientists associated with the research institute have been working at laboratories in Orono, Bar Harbor, Bangor and elsewhere, waiting for the completion of the new lab to bring them together.
Speaking on Friday to the gathering of local officials, elected representatives, and partners in the biomedical institute project, institute director Janet Hock said the opening of the new facility marks not only a new home for the institute but also a bright spot in an otherwise lackluster economic period.
“In these grim times, we have an opportunity to contribute to the development of the economy, education and service to the community,” Hock said.
The Maine Institute of Human Genetics and Health is already attracting international attention, she said, and, in concert with its partners, is making a name for itself in the areas of cancer, brain and bone research.
Closer to home, Hock said, the institute is providing research opportunities to under-graduate students from Husson University and UMaine, and partnering on projects with several other university-based programs in this country and Canada.
To date, the institute has attracted six full-time scientists, along with a small cadre of technicians and assistants.
Among those scientists is David Smalley, a 45-year-old researcher who moved with his family to Hampden last month from Charlottesville, Va. On Friday, Smalley, who specializes in the study of proteins and their ability to predict certain cancers, was playing host in the proteomics lab at the new facility, doing his best to explain the complex ideas and instrumentation that he works with daily.
Smalley, who has worked at the University of Virginia for the past six years, said he was drawn to the Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health in part because of its emerging status.
“The opportunities for professional development are greater here,” he said. “At more established institutions there are more rigid rules, but here I can be part of creating something.”
Hock said she expects to recruit five more researchers in the coming year — a task made easier by the bright new lab space with the latest technology and equipment. The project cost about $4 million to complete, with funding from federal grants, local philanthropic groups and other sources.
The Sylvan Road laboratory will house the Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health for three to five years, until its permanent home in Brewer becomes available. Eastern Maine Medical Center’s new Cancer Care of Maine building is under construction on Whiting Hill and is expected to house patient care services by the end of 2009. It will take longer, however, before the top floor of that building will be ready for the genetics lab to move in.
When that happens, said Laurent Beauregarde, associate director for development at the research institute, the Sylvan Road facility will become available for use by other private or public research groups, including business or educational organizations.
Also speaking at the ribbon cutting was Maine 2nd District Rep. Michael Michaud, who is credited with securing federal funds for the project, and representatives of U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.
The Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health is expected to stimulate the regional economy by attracting biomedical and biotechnology-related businesses to eastern Maine. One such business, Trillium Diagnostics, is now located in the new Sylvan Road facility.
On the Web: www.mainegenetics.org