BANGOR, Maine — Once touted as the ascendant economic star of Eastern Maine, the Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health will discontinue the centerpiece of its biomedical research program in September, according to an official of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, the research institute’s corporate parent.
Dr. Erik Steele, EMHS’ chief medical officer, has served as executive director of the MIHGH since last fall, taking over from former director Dr. Janet Hock. Steele said Sunday that the lab’s primary focus on exploring the links between environmental exposures to arsenic, radon and other toxic materials and the incidence of cancer and other diseases has failed to attract the public and private funding it needs to remain viable.
Increased competition nationwide for government research funding and private industry investment, in combination with the widespread economic downturn and general budget-tightening for hospitals and health care systems, Steele said, have made it necessary to discontinue the ambitious central mission of MIHGH.
Steele said EMHS has sought advice from a private consultant, trying to find a way to keep the lab in operation.
“They said we’re just too small be be competitive,” he said. “They said [EMHS] would need to invest a minimum of $5 million a year for five years to increase the chance of survival, and even then, there is no guarantee.” At a time when Eastern Maine Medical Center and other EMHS member organizations are struggling financially, he said, there’s no way to pump that kind of money into the research institute.
About 20 people will lose their jobs as a result of the decision.
MIHGH was unveiled in 2005 in a glowing State of the State announcement by Gov. John Baldacci. The new institute was to be the cornerstone of a regional biomedical research triangle, Baldacci said, with Eastern Maine Medical Center, The Jackson Laboratory and the University of Maine as key partners.
Unlike the bench research performed using mice at The Jackson Laboratory and zebra fish at UMaine, or clinical trials of new drugs and technologies that use human subjects, MIHGH was to specialize in “translational” studies that bridge the two.
Bostered by taxpayer-approved bonds for biomed projects across the state, as well as a $7 million grant over 5 years from the Department of Defense, MIHGH would bring top-flight scientists to the Bangor area, provide hundreds of new, well-paid jobs and attract a broad range of spin-off enterprises, Baldacci said.
Shortly after Baldacci’s address, UMaine president Robert Kennedy announced the founding of the new Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, listing MIHGH among the region’s other research facilities that would entice top-tier students from around the world to study in eastern Maine. The announcement was accompanied by a plan to rehabilitate portions of the University College of Bangor campus to accommodate related life science programs from the Orono campus.
Originally slated to occupy the top floor of the new CancerCare of Maine building in Brewer, MIHGH settled into “temporary” quarters on Sylvan Road in 2005, where it has remained even after the completion of the new CancerCare of Maine building in 2009. The top floor of the new building remains vacant.
EMHS is committed to maintaining the institute’s Sylvan Road lab and the high-end equipment it houses, Steele said, and other research projects headquartered there will continue for the time being. Those projects include studies conducted by research faculty at the University of Maine and Husson University, as well as some projects affiliated with The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor. In addition, MIHGH will continue to offer commercial services for other researchers, including DNA analysis and other “high-end” lab services, Steele said.
UMaine vice president for research Michael Eckardt said Friday that two faculty researchers and several graduate students are currently engaged in “very productive” projects at MIHGH and have been assured they will be allowed to finish those projects. Eckardt said EMHS has been forthright about the “somewhat disappointing” changes at MIHGH and is working to help identify alternative research sites for UMaine students. The Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences has to date enrolled between 20 and 30 students, he said.
At The Jackson Laboratory, Vice President for Advancement and External Relations Michael Hyde issued a statement on Friday.
“We are eager to continue our relationship with MIHGH, and we are in discussions with Dr. Steele about the form the program will take going forward,” Hyde wrote.
Steele said MIHGH has accomplished a lot in its brief tenure, including attracting new research and clinical expertise to the area, forging collaborative relationships with other facilities, and achieving national recognition for its work in cancer epidemiology.
He said the downsizing of the lab is not a reflection of former director Hock’s performance. Anyone would have run into the same funding problems, he said.
Reached on Sunday, Hock said she could not comment on the changes at MIHGH, but said she is looking into new research challenges in other areas, including Chicago and China.
Steele said EMHS will continue to support clinical studies in the region, including trials of medications, medical devices and new primary care initiatives. “We’ll be looking closely at the science of delivering health care to rural populations,” he said. “It’s closer to what we do every day.”