June 24, 2018
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Leading role in genetics forecast for Bangor area

By Meg Haskell, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — “Invented in Maine” is poised to join, and even supplant, “Made in Maine” and “Maine-grown” as important branding trademarks for the Pine Tree State.

At a business breakfast sponsored by the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, Janet Hock, director of the Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health, told an audience of about 90 area business leaders that the state’s economic development in the 21st century will be driven by research, innovation and invention.

Jobs in science and medicine contribute to a “high-wage economy” and support the region’s overall quality of life, Hock said, while medical breakthroughs improve disease prevention and treatment. Maine’s growing biomedical research sector is positioning the state to play an important role while benefiting economically from the synergy between research, education and business, she said.

“But,” she cautioned, “we will only be successful if we all work together.” For Hock, working together entails an expansive network of professional collaboration that extends well beyond the research institute’s official partnerships with Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor and the University of Maine in Orono. The Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health is an affiliate of Brewer-based Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.

Hock said the institute is working with the Atlantic Cancer Research Center in New Brunswick and Sherbrooke University in Quebec to advance understanding of how genetic variations alter the risk of developing certain cancers in response to environmental exposures. She noted that the institute recently added the French translation of its name — Institut de Genetique Humaine et de Sante du Maine — to its letterhead and other documents, reflecting its collaborations in Canada.

Funding from the U.S. Department of Defense and collaboration with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs at Togus is allowing researchers from the institute to study post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and sleep disorders. A special focus of this research is a two-year study of families in Maine and Massachusetts to learn why 30 percent of children whose siblings have cancer develop symptoms of PTSD.

And researchers at the Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health are collaborating with other labs in Maine and elsewhere to shed light on certain bone-related disorders, including osteoporosis and cancers of the lung, breast and prostate that typically metastasize to bones.

Closer to home, the institute is working with James W. Sewall Co. in Old Town to develop a geographic mapping system that correlates cancer cases in Maine with the presence of naturally occurring carcinogens such as radon, uranium and arsenic. Other mapping projects will allow researchers to identify areas where man-made chemicals in the environment may be having a negative impact on human health.

The common goal in all these projects is to advance understanding of the complex interactions between genetics and the environment, Hock said. And the specialized role of the Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health is its ability to take pure research findings out of the laboratory and offer them to flesh-and-blood patients in the form of customized drug trials and other cutting-edge treatments for cancer and diseases of the bone and brain.

The institute is housed in a temporary facility on Sylvan Road while it awaits the completion in Brewer of new facilities for CancerCare of Maine, EMMC’s cancer treatment center. The Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health will move into the top floor of that building, making it easier for researchers, physicians and patients to interact on a regular basis.

A three-person panel discussion followed Hock’s talk. Michael Eckardt, vice president for research at the University of Maine, and Jake Ward, assistant vice president for research, economic development, and governmental relations discussed the university’s collaboration with the Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health.

Dr. George Eyrer of Bangor-based Dahl-Chase Diagnostic Services, which also works with the genetics institute, said the pathology laboratory serves medical providers statewide and has developed an international expertise in diagnosing and monitoring treatment for paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria, a rare and potentially life-threatening blood disorder.

Dahl-Chase contracts with Alexion Pharmaceuticals of Cheshire, Conn., to provide testing and support for the drug Soleris, the only medication proved effective in managing the disorder.

“Who would know this little lab in Bangor, Maine, would be such a player, one of the largest businesses for testing [for the blood disorder] in the world?” Eyrer said.

On the Web:www.mainegenetics.org

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