A recent $60 million funding decision in North Carolina addresses some inequities in the genomics industry and sets the stage for new markets for biochip-based technology.
In early August, North Carolina’s Golden LEAF (Long-term Economic Advancement Foundation) announced the approval of a set of grants that will create a worker-training program at two universities and the state’s community college system.
Golden LEAF, the organization established to disburse tobacco settlement funds in North Carolina, will give North Carolina State University $36 million to construct and staff a bioprocessing training factory; North Carolina Central University in Durham $19.1 million to establish an undergraduate and graduate curriculum in bioinformatics and biomedicine; and the state’s community colleges $9.4 million to create worker training classes that will feed the NC State factory. The North Carolina Bio-technology Center has pledged to kick in another $4.5 million.
Bioprocessing — fermentation, purification and separation — is at the heart of manufacturing biologically based products for use in pharmaceutical and biotechnology processes. It consists of upstream processing — the culturing of cells and microorganisms — and downstream — the separation and refinement of bioproducts for end use.
Researchers are conducting experimentation to adapt biochip technology to create miniature systems to test and streamline bioprocesses.
“It’s pretty early, but the idea is having a biochip to screen through a variety of process conditions in higher throughput,” Jonathan Dordick, the head of the chemical engineering department at Rensaeller Polytechnical Institute in Troy, NY, told BioArray News. “The market for this is nowhere near the size of the market for gene-chips or proteomics. And, taking a process-scale technology down to the chip level and then scaling it up again is much more complicated than a simple binding process.”
But, for the present, the funding illustrates an effort to to attract more minorities to scientific research, particularly in genomics.
This funding announcement was seen as a victory for North Carolina Central University, a 6,000-student historically black school in the Research Triangle.
North Carolina is not alone in this effort to attract more people into research. Nationally, the federal government is encouraging the winners of significant research grants to spend part of the funds on outreach programs.
“We are doing things that are NIH-wide in terms of underrepresented minorities, and one of those is encouraging people who have institutional training grants to appoint underrepresented minorities as graduate students or postdocs,” said Bettie Graham, program director, genome research training and career development for the division of extramural research at the National Human Genome Research Institute. “Our action plan made it mandatory for people who had certain types of grants — like for centers of excellence in genomics, production centers, or database groups — to come in and ask for supplements for training.”
The idea, said Graham, was to embed this in active grants: “Training is part of every investigator’s job position. They should always be training the next generation and this is a way to get that started. Clearly, at the end of the day, we want to have more PhD types, but the educational pipeline is long and leaky. We hope this exposes people to genomics who have never thought of it before, and if the environment is right, they will forever have that with them.”
In February, the Whitehead Institute launched a $2.2 million initiative “aimed at increasing the representation of underrepresented minority groups in the field of genomics.” With a five-year NIH grant, the Whitehead program will establish collaborations with MIT, the MIT/Harvard Division of Health Sciences Technology and a to-be-named historically black college or university to “engage minority students at the pre-baccalaureate through post-doctoral levels.”
The Baylor College of Medicine Human Genome Sequencing Center also recently unveiled a similar program to be conducted in collaboration with Prairie View A&M University and Texas Southern University, two historically black colleges, as well as the University of Houston and Texas A&M University-Kingsville.
A Political Joust
Four years ago, an appropriations bill to create the bioprocessing training program at NC State was introduced into the state legislature. But, a North Carolina Central graduate, NC Rep. Mickey Michaux (D-Durham), saw an opportunity for his district and alma mater.
“We said, why do this at NC State?” Michaux said. “We stopped that appropriation and came back and got some other folks interested — you know, North Carolina has 153 biotech companies, and 60 of them are in Durham County.”
In May, the North Carolina Economic Development Board, an advisory entity whose members are appointed by the governor and the leaders of the legislature, gave its blessings to a $45 million plan to create a biotechnology manufacturing, training, and education program in the state. Another $15 million was to be raised from industry. Of that money, $5 million was to go to NCCU.
In the months since then Bob Ingram, vice chairman of pharmaceuticals at GlaxoSmithKline, joined Michaux, and state senate leader Marc Basnight, as well as black members of the UNC Board of Governors, in championing the North Carolina Central cause and jawboning an additional $15 million from the well-heeled LEAF fund for NC Central.
“Of all the victories I’ve had, this one sits atop of my list,” Michaux, a lawyer who has represented Durham for 24 years in the state legislature, said. “North Carolina Central will be one of the first historically black colleges that will be offering professional degrees in biotechology.”
The funds will support the development of undergraduate certification and degree programs in bioinformatics, a masters in bioinformatics, and a PhD program in biomedical science at NCCU, which was founded in 1909 as a religious school, and then bought by the state, which in 1923 changed its name to North Carolina College for Negros, the first state-supported liberal arts college for blacks. It became North Carolina Central in 1969.
The academic programs will operate in tandem with the school’s four-year-old Julius L. Chambers Biomedical Biotechnology Research Institute, which is located in 40,000 square feet of space on the campus, housing 11 research labs. Until the Golden LEAF funding, the institute brought in about $6.5 million a year in grants, claiming a $7.5 million grant recently from the National Center for Minority Health and Health Disparities, and nearly $1.5 million to develop a NASA Center of Excellence.
Ken Harewood, a former Pfizer researcher, is the director of the institute and principal investigator for the school’s cancer research program, which is conducting molecular, genetic, and epidemiological studies to determine the relationship between allelic variation and prostate cancer in minority populations. The institute also conducts genomic-based research in cardiovascular disease, substance abuse and alcoholism.
Today, Harewood directs 18 PhDs, about half of whom are on a tenure track, and the other half hired as independent researchers. The school is waiting on a final okay from the president of the University of North Carolina system to launch its bioinformatics program, which will be then followed by a PhD program.
The NCCU institute doesn’t have its own microarray facility, but in the genomics-rich Research Triangle area, that’s not a problem. Harewood said the school has access to the microarray core facility at the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center minutes away at the University of North Carolina, or researchers can drive to a new core facility at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, or the microarray core at Duke University.
Genomics, Harewood said, will be an important part of the new curriculum.
“I believe that you are not going to be able to avoid having to learn and understand what is going on in genomics or bioinformatics, I don’t care if you are a scientist or not,” said Harewood. “If North Carolina is going to ratchet it up another level, you have to have some education associated with it.”
He said the state counts some 2,500 new jobs a year created by its pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.
“No reason why they should have to go out of the state or out of the country to get workers,” he said.
But, having a program like this in no way insures a steady supply of workers, he said.
“Ten percent of the students enrolled in any university might choose to be in the sciences,” Harewood said. “Maybe 1 percent remain there when they graduate. That’s the pipeline. Here is no different. A lot of the kids want to do medicine and dentistry. If they can’t do that, they fall back and get a PhD in the sciences.”
Companies, he said, look for training and education and people who are creative, innovative, and motivated.
“I was hired by Pfizer in 1971,” he said. “If it was on the basis of color, they wouldn’t hire me. But I had a good degree and a good background. My mentor was a professor at Rockefeller University and I was trained by Robert Holley of Cornell.”