Sen. Collins tours research, clinical facilities

Posted Aug. 09, 2010, at 11:42 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Sen. Susan Collins, in Bangor while the U.S. Senate is in recess, took time Monday afternoon to tour the Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health in Bangor and the Lafayette Family Cancer Center in Brewer. Both facilities are affiliated with Brewer-based Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.

Collins, who had not visited either location before Monday, said it was an opportunity for her to learn more about federally funded research being conducted in cooperation with other area research institutions. Collins serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which recently passed a $169.7 billion funding bill that includes $32 billion for biomedical research grants administered through the National Institutes for Health.

Collins, who joined fellow Republicans on the committee in opposing the measure, said Monday she supports funding biomedical research but seeks to cap discretionary government spending in the 2011 federal budget.

Since it was established in 2007, the Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health has been funded almost exclusively by about $4 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Defense. Institute director Janet Hock said Monday she needs to attract competitive NIH funding in the future in order to continue the work of the institute.

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At the Sylvan Road research laboratory in Bangor, Collins learned about a mapping project that examines the complex relationship between Maine’s high rates of cancer and natural deposits of arsenic and radon-producing granite. The mapping project is being conducted in partnership with the James W. Sewall Co. in Old Town, using data from public and private sources.

In other areas of the laboratory, researchers explained projects aimed at illuminating the ways in which DNA is changed by toxic exposures and how viral infections damage the structure of cell walls. In the proteomics division, managing director Claire Deselle told Collins the facility’s cutting-edge equipment and rigorous research environment attract top young researchers who otherwise might choose to work in other states.

Deselle said the institute contracts with private organizations ranging from Yale University to the Puritan medical products manufacturing company in Guilford.

Collins recently joined her fellow Republicans on the Appropriations Committee in opposing the $169.7 billion funding bill that includes $32 billion for NIH research grants. Committee Democrats overrode their Republican colleagues to pass the measure in a party-line vote on July 29.

On Monday, Collins said she supports many programs funded by the Appropriations bill, including the NIH funding, but hopes to rein in overall nonentitlement spending in the federal budget. NIH funding got a $10 billion boost in 2008 thanks to federal stimulus allocations, she noted.

The future of the Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health is dependent on NIH funding in an increasingly competitive environment, said institute director Hock.

“The recovery money will be finishing up, and all [biomedical researchers] will be looking to reapply,” she said Monday.

In addition to its contributions to scientific and medical knowledge, Maine’s biomedical research sector is considered an important and growing element of the state economy. Other biomedical research programs in Maine that compete for NIH funds include the University of Maine in Orono, The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor and the Maine Medical Center Research Institute in Scarborough.

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