BAR HARBOR, Maine — Growth, for both a local research lab and human tissue, was the goal in mind Friday morning when officials ceremonially broke ground on a new building next to Frenchman Bay.
The anticipated research facility at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory will house the lab’s new Kathryn W. Davis Center for Regenerative Biology and Medicine. The goal of the center is to learn how some marine species can regenerate tissues and limbs and whether the same can be done with human tissue.
While the lab pursues such research, it also hopes to create new jobs at its campus in the village of Salisbury Cove. According to Dr. Charles Wray, the lab’s director of scientific resources, the $4.5 million building will allow the lab to create or sustain approximately 20 permanent jobs, most of which are likely to be new positions. The lab now has 51 year-round employees.
“It’s very significant growth,” Wray said of the lab’s expansion.
Dr. Kevin Strange, MDI Bio Lab’s director, said Friday that the new building would allow the lab to attract new investigators in regenerative research, a field of study that he said “has just exploded” over the past decade.
“It’s a huge boon for us because it will allow us to recruit new faculty,” Strange said.
Jeri Bowers, MDI Bio Lab’s director of development and public affairs, said Friday that Dr. Randy Dahn and Dr. Voot Yin, who just started at the lab last week, will lead teams conducting research at the Davis Center. She said the lab is looking to fill another lead investigator position for regenerative research. In all, the 10,000-square-foot building will have room for four such investigative teams, each with about six or seven researchers on staff, she said.
“We just put an ad out for an additional scientist,” Bowers said.
The new research and construction projects at the lab are being funded primarily by two federal grants. The Department of Defense awarded a $1.6 million grant to the lab earlier this year to fund regenerative research. Another grant of $3.86 million from the National Institutes of Health will go toward construction costs.
The Defense Department is interested in regenerative research because of the types of injuries military personnel often suffer in combat, federal and lab officials have said. But beyond growing back a missing limb, regenerative research also could help scientists figure out how to regrow organs, which could affect how diseases such as diabetes and emphysema are treated.
A sea skate, which can regenerate its limbs, shares about 90 percent of its genes with humans, according to lab officials. Because of the genetic similarities, scientists hope to learn where along the evolutionary process the regenerative ability was lost and whether it can be reversed.
Strange, the lab director, said that in laboratory settings, zebra fish can lose up to 30 percent of their hearts and yet grow them back into fully functioning, healthy organs.
“Your forearm was once a fish fin,” Strange said. “We know we haven’t lost the genes. They just aren’t functioning the same way anymore.”
The building, like the 15,000-square-foot research building completed in 2008, is being designed and constructed to high environmental standards by Bangor-based WBRC Architects and Engineers and Brewer-based Nickerson & O’Day, respectively. With the new building, which replaces an outdated structure built in 1973, lab officials hope to save “tens of thousands of dollars” each year in reduced energy costs, Wray said.
Karl Ward, president of Nickerson & O’Day, said the project is good for the lab and good for Maine, which needs more good jobs so its economic base can grow and improve. Approximately 90 percent of the money spent on the building project, which will support roughly 25 construction-related jobs for the next two years, will stay in Hancock and Penobscot counties, officials said.
“It’s not easy to do business here,” Ward said, adding that his firm had to compete for the lab project with larger, out-of-state firms that benefit from lower operating expenses.
The lab understands the importance of not just its scientific mission, but of investing in Maine’s economy, Ward said.
“MDI Bio Lab gets it,” he said.
Bowers said construction of the building is expected to be complete by early 2012.