BREWER, Maine — The Bangor area’s developing cluster of biomedical research facilities holds significant promise for the area’s economic future, speakers at a business breakfast in Brewer said Wednesday.
Speakers from The Jackson Laboratory, the Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health and the University of Maine addressed an audience of about 50 members of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce at Jeff’s Catering to discuss the emergence of biomedical research in the area.
Collaboration among researchers, students and the facilities themselves is key to growth, said President Robert Kennedy of the University of Maine.
“In Maine, we don’t have enough resources in any one institute, public or private, to go it alone,” he said. But working together, the biomed sector is attracting millions of dollars in research funding, educating a vital and qualified work force and contributing to the advancement of scientific and medical knowledge, he said.
At UMaine, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, established in 2006, now boasts 40 doctoral students and five graduates, Kennedy said. Many students are attracted to the program because it allows them to pursue a high-level education and meaningful career in their home state of Maine, he said. Graduate and undergraduate students with an interest in biomedical research value the opportunity to study with scientists not only at the UMaine campus but also at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, the Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health in Bangor, and other facilities in the state, Kennedy said.
John Fitzpatrick of The Jackson Laboratory reviewed the facility’s long history and the surprising success of a world-class genetics research program in a remote island location in Maine. With a total of about 1,325 employees in Bar Harbor and at a much smaller campus in California, The Jackson Laboratory this year will see about $175 million from research funding and other revenue streams. Although 93 percent of the lab’s revenues come from out of state, 85 percent of budgeted funds stay in Maine in the form of payroll, purchasing and contracting, he said. The laboratory is challenged in finding qualified employees at all educational levels as well as by energy costs, health care expenses for employees and a shortage of affordable housing on Mount Desert Island.
Jerry Whalen, vice president for business development at Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, told the breakfast crowd that the Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health fills a critical research niche in eastern Maine. Maine’s higher-than-average rates of cancer have inspired the institute’s focus on “environmental oncology” — an exploration of the link between exposure to carcinogens such as arsenic and radon and the incidence of cancer. The institute is unique in Maine for using nonclinical laboratory research to guide the treatment of patients diagnosed with cancer and other disorders, he noted. The institute also has spawned the growth of some small research-related local businesses.
The biomed research cluster in eastern Maine is unlikely to compete with large-scale research communities in other parts of the country, Whalen said, but continued collaboration among existing facilities will attract more scientists, educators, students, businesses and jobs to the area