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Jackson Lab to Add New Hires, Next-Gen Sequencing Tech in '10

By Alex Philippidis

The Jackson Laboratory during 2010 plans to hire at least two new investigators, acquire next-generation sequencing equipment, and develop a research program for its planned Florida facility focused on translating its genetic discoveries into new drugs, the lab's President and CEO Richard Woychik said Wednesday.

In an interview with GenomeWeb Daily News, Woychik also said Jackson plans to continue growing its mouse sales and service businesses, and complete a mouse importation building rising at its flagship campus in Bar Harbor, Maine.

"We'd like to bring in two to three investigators this next year," Woychik said.

Until applicants emerge, Jackson can’t say which specialties will see the new investigators, Woychick said, but added that the lab wants to build on strengths in neuroscience, and fill needs in cancer research, bioinformatics and computational biology, and immunology.

Jackson currently has 36 investigators among its 1,177 employees based at Bar Harbor. No investigators are based at Jackson's other facility in Sacramento, whose 94 staffers focus on supplying West Coast labs with mice. The lab also employs 26 field representatives nationwide.

Each new investigator is expected to hire about 10 employees for their lab, Woychik said.

Between that and the 32 job vacancies posted on Jackson's web site, Jackson's personnel count may grow by as many as 50 in 2010.

Just under a year ago, in March 2009, Jackson eliminated 55 positions, but now says that those employees can reapply. Also, it cut the hours of 315 hourly workers, blaming the economy, but By August, after a spike in mouse sales, it restored these workers' full schedules.

Jackson also employs 26 field representatives nationwide.

Woychik said Jackson will also replace standard DNA sequencing machines with Illumina whole-genome sequencing technology. The lab has yet to determine how many of the systems it will acquire this year.

The research institution has also begun to develop a program for the research it would carry out in its planned Florida facility.

"It's important as part of our growth strategy to make sure that we position ourselves to get closer to the bedside and do more translational and clinical work," Woychik said. "We've done this through collaborations in the past, but the Florida opportunity could be the chance for us to become more directly translational in the nature of the work we do."

Another focus, he said, may be human genetics research that complements the mouse genetics research carried out at Bar Harbor. Jackson has proposed "as just a starting point" that the Florida campus could focus on personalized medicine, Woychik said, though details and the timing of a final decision have yet to be decided.

"We're trying to develop messages around this whole theme of personalized medicine: Why should you as a healthcare consumer care about molecular genetics?" Woychik said.

He added that "there's a lot of science planning that needs to be done" by faculty members led by Robert Braun, Jackson's associate director/chair of research, plus outside scientists and administrators.

Woychik also said that Jackson Laboratory hopes to continue growing its largest source of revenue: sales and services of mice for academic and commercial labs.

During the 2009 fiscal year that ended May 31, Jackson distributed 2.7 million mice to more than 19,000 investigators in more than 900 institutions and 50 countries.

Jackson generated 59.4 percent of its revenue, or $98.7 million, from mice sales and services — up 8.7 percent from the $90.8 million generated in FY 2008, when mice accounted for 56.7 percent of total revenues.

That growth, Woychik said, reflected increased activity by labs, largely due to the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Jackson has won $8.3 million to date from the stimulus act.

Woychik would not predict how much mouse sales and services, or other sources of Jackson's revenue, will grow in 2010. But he added that revenue growth is likely as the lab moves to commercialize some of its recent discoveries.

In particular, the lab is looking to interest academic and commercial labs in its diversity outcross mice, a specially bred strain of mice whose applications may include testing of chemotherapies to increase patient safety.

Jackson won a two-year, $1 million National Cancer Institute grant for the research, of which $499,422 came from the stimulus act.

"We're hoping that in '10, we can begin to offer the diversity outcross as a new resource offering from the laboratory," with customers either buying the mice for their research, or having Jackson test their drugs and reporting data back to the labs," Woychik said. "I'm hoping that will be probably midway into the year."

He said Jackson in 2010 will also continue marketing its embryo-freezing technology designed to freeze genetic variation. The patented Genetic Stability Program reboots the production colonies with frozen embryos or gametes from stocks every five generations; the stocks are set up to give a 25-year supply.

"As we create demand for those products, we'll have to hire the staff to support the demand," Woychik said.

Jackson's mouse operations will also benefit when the three-story, 22,500-square-foot Bar Harbor mouse importation facility, now under construction, is completed in November.

No changes are planned for the 85,000-square-foot facility in Sacramento, designed to serve West Coast lab customers. Woychik said this customer base will likely grow given increased interest in mouse models for personalized medicine studies, using technology that reprograms the individual cells of patients into induced pluripotent cells.

After mice sales and services, Jackson's second largest revenue source in FY 2009 was federal research grants at $54.3 million or 32.7 percent of total revenues. Third-largest was private gifts and grants at $10.9 million or 6.6 percent; with $2.1 million or 1.3 percent from other sources.

Federal grants dipped in FY '09 from $54.8 million a year earlier, while private gifts and grants rose from $9.3 million in FY '08. For the current fiscal year, Jackson Laboratory operates on a $169.8 million budget, compared with $168.9 million a year ago.

Private gift giving is expected to stay steady with the 2009 fiscal year, Michael Hyde, Jackson's vice president for advancement and external relations, told GWDN. The lab's overall target is $5 million toward the operating budget.

Hyde said Jackson has already collected $800,000 toward the $1 million it must raise to receive the $1 million "challenge gift" of geneticist and author Weslie Janeway, announced last year. Proceeds are intended to help the lab recruit and support new researchers.

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