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Around the Regions: Sep 25, 2009


Federal Probe Focuses on Spending of Government Grants by SUNY Research Foundation, SUNY Central

Federal investigators have opened a "far-reaching" probe of the State University of New York Research Foundation to see if SUNY is appropriately spending tens of millions of dollars in government grants meant for specific health projects — an investigation that could involve every SUNY university and college that receives federal funding from the National Institutes of Health, the Times-Union of Albany, NY, reported earlier this month.

Assistant US Attorney Robert Trusiak told the newspaper Sept. 13 that two subpoenas were issued in late August seeking several years' worth of documentation about health-related grants that aggregate to tens of millions of dollars flowing through the Research Foundation to SUNY schools statewide. One subpoena was served on the research foundation, the other on SUNY Central Administration. Both subpoenas seek documentation must be turned in to government investigators by Sept. 30.

Trusiak told the Times-Union that the probe followed concerns about how the Research Foundation is spending funds meant for federal research projects, especially at SUNY's University at Buffalo. News of the investigation was first reported Sept. 13 in the Buffalo News.

"It's fair to say some of the information with the government includes audits that raise questions about the correct treatment of federal grant money," Trusiak told the Times-Union. He said the subpoenas seek information on "whether grant costs were properly allocated as required by federal regulations."

Research Foundation President John O'Connor, a SUNY vice chancellor, told the Albany newspaper the federal probe is seeking information about the process used for the grants: "They haven't been specific yet as to what they're looking at." O'Connor said the foundation has several controls in place to make sure SUNY's contracts with federal granting agencies are in compliance with all federal laws.

Cathy Kaszluga, a spokeswoman for the foundation, told the Times-Union that internal and external audits from agencies that include the US Environmental Protection Agency and US Defense Contract Audit Agency have produced "clean" reviews of the foundation's practices: "We are confident that our business system is designed with appropriate internal controls to ensure that only those costs that are allowable, allocable and reasonable are claimed on federal grants and contracts that we administer."

Joseph Brennan, a spokesman for UBuffalo, told the Albany newspaper he suspects the inquiry originated with complaints made in 2007 by a former Buffalo researcher. He also said the complaints were investigated internally by the research foundation, which found no "fraudulent billing" but did identify problems with the methods used to allocate costs for computer services. That inquiry resulted in procedure changes that were instituted 18 months ago, the newspaper quoted Brennan as saying.

Massachusetts Biotechnology Council Rebrands Itself MassBio; Relaunches Website

The Massachusetts Biotechnology Council this week unveiled a rebranding campaign that includes a new logo and name, MassBio, and a relaunched web site. The efforts followed a year of strategic repositioning work by officials of the 600-plus member life-sci industry group.

"MassBio better reflects our commitment to improve and evolve to best meet our members’ needs," Robert Coughlin, the group's president and CEO, said in a statement.

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MassBio also launched a redesigned website with new content that includes statistics on employment and investment in the Massachusetts biotechnology industry, as well as a member portal allowing members to log in for access to premium content.

"The new site will allow MassBio to better communicate to our members the latest events, news and developments taking place in the industry to our online audience of over 200,000 industry representatives, policy-makers, doctors, patients, job-seekers, and academics each year," Coughlin said in the statement.

The rebranding is the latest of several new initiatives this year by the biotech council. In mid-April, the council released a Deloitte-produced strategic plan concluding that MassBio must promote greater collaboration between the state's life-sciences businesses and academic institutions if the Bay State's life-sciences sector is to remain a top-tier biocluster through 2015 [BRN, April 17]. Later that month, it launched its BioReady Communities program, naming its first set of 44 communities rated the readiest to accommodate life-sciences companies seeking to relocate to or expand within the Bay State [BRN, May 1]. And in August, MassBio issued statistics showing a 43-percent gain in biotech and pharma jobs between 2001 and 2008 [BRN, Sept. 4]

Sharon, Mass.-based corporate branding and design firm Tiziani Whitmyre worked with MassBio to update its logo and identity materials, as well as with Newburyport, Mass.-based web development company iMarc on the website upgrade project.

Detroit 'Strongly' Considered for 2010 Stem Cell Summit Due to Prop 2, TechTown, Organizer Says

"Detroit is strongly under consideration,” as the site of the 2010 World Stem Cell Summit, Bernard Siegel, founder and executive director of the Genetics Policy Institute, the Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., group that organizes the annual conferences, told Crain's Detroit Business this week.

“It's not set in stone, yet," he said, adding that a decision is expected soon after this year's summit, which took place Sept. 21-23 at the Baltimore Convention Center.

Siegel offered the newspaper two reasons why the Motor City — more famous in recent years for a local economy that has declined with the US auto industry — was attractive to his group. One is the passage last year of Proposal 2, which declared that “any research permitted under federal law on human embryos may be conducted in Michigan,” subject to federal law and four stipulations including the banning of human cloning [BRN, Nov. 10, 2008].

Until Prop 2, embryonic stem cell research had been technically legal in Michigan, but was all but precluded because the state had banned the destruction of embryos for “non-therapeutic” research purposes.

The second reason, Siegel told Crain's, is the Stem Cell Commercialization Facility, which is scheduled to start construction by year's end within TechTown, the research and technology park of Wayne State University in Detroit [BRN, Feb. 23]. Construction is expected be completed by the end of June, Randal Charlton, TechTown's executive director, told the newspaper.

Plans for the stem cell facility have grown since they were announced in February by Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano in his State of the County address. Plans now call for a nearly $5 million center occupying 15,000 square feet, versus earlier plans for a $3 million facility of 2,508 square feet.

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Randal Charlton, TechTown's executive director, told Crain's he received telephone confirmation from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development of its $4.1 million award for the project — a $2 million grant, the remainder a loan. The facility will also receive $750,000 in funds from Wayne County.

Siegel told the newspaper he visited Michigan Aug. 19-20, touring TechTown and meeting with aides to Gov. Jennifer Granholm, as well as with Wayne County's chief development officer, Turkia Mullin, and with executives of the Detroit Marriott Renaissance Center. Siegel also said he met in Ann Arbor, Mich., with University of Michigan stem-cell researchers, and in East Lansing, Mich., with researchers from Michigan State University.

“There's certainly enough academic resources in the state to make it a center for regenerative medicine,” Siegel said, according to the newspaper.

The Baltimore stem cell summit drew more than 1,200 scientists, researchers, government officials and representatives of private industry from more than 25 counties. The 2010 conference is tentatively set for the first week in October.

New York State Institutions Capture $605.5M in ARRA-Funded Federal Research Grants

New York State universities, medical facilities, businesses and research institutions have been awarded 1,164 research grants worth $605.5 million through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the $787 billion economic stimulus measure enacted by President Obama in February, Gov. David Paterson announced Tuesday during an appearance at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.

As of Sept. 17, the grants included 818 NIH awards totaling more than $223 million, or 9.2 percent of the total, ranking New York third among states; 324 awards from the National Science Foundation totaling almost $138 million, or 5.6 percent of the total, ranking New York fourth; and $243 million from the Department of Energy and $925,000 from the Department of Agriculture.

In the largest grant, Brookhaven National Laboratory won $150 million from the US Department of Energy to construct the National Synchrotron Light Source II, the brightest x-ray source ever built, for research intended to assist in the development of new medicine as well as new sources of energy.

Other awards: $16 million for the Energy Frontier Research Center at Columbia University — matched by 10 percent from the state and another $250,000 from the state Energy Research and Development Authority — to use nanotechnology and supercomputing for advances in biofuels and other applications; $2 million to the State University of New York's University at Buffalo Center for Research in Cardiovascular Medicine, to study the underlying causes of heart disease and stroke; and $1.2 million to the University of Rochester to study behavioral issues related to the spread of HIV, and research to design a new vaccine that would inhibit the transmission of the disease.

The state has promised to provide a 10 percent match in its own funds for 168 research applications worth $1.2 billion that have not yet been acted on by federal agencies, with the intent of increasing their chances of gaining an award.

New York institutions receiving the largest amounts of ARRA funding include: Brookhaven Laboratory, $186 million; Cornell University, $69.7 million; Columbia University, $66.9 million; New York University and the New York University School of Medicine, $28.2 million; University of Rochester, $26.7 million; Mount Sinai School of Medicine, $28.7 million; State University at Stony Brook, $21 million; and SUNY University at Buffalo, $14 million.

Biotechnology National Center of Excellence at City College of San Francisco Wins $5M NSF Grant

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $5 million grant to the Bio-Link Next Generation National ATE Center for Biotechnology and Life Sciences, located at City College of San Francisco. The grant is intended to enable the center to renew and expand its National Center of Excellence.

The Bio-Link Center said in a statement the new grant will allow it to expand direct services to faculty, counselors, students, biotechnology programs and educational institutions; stimulate information sharing and collaboration among students, faculty, industry, and educational institutions; and supply expanded and improved information to students in the biosciences and related industries.

“The new Bio-Link Center of Excellence will employ additional people to carry out its activities, and work with local academic leaders and industry to develop internship opportunities,” Bio-Link Director Elaine Johnson said in a statement. “The center will also develop replicable models for engaging community and technical colleges with biotechnology industry, for example, key partners such as the BayBio Institute,” a non-profit 501(c)(3) charitable organization established by BayBio, the life-sci industry group for the San Francisco Bay Area and northern California.

The Bio-Link ATE Center for Biotechnology was established in 1998 through a $5 million NSF grant as a National Center of Excellence, and since 2004 continues its work as an ATE National Resource Center funded by NSF.

Bio-Link works with seven regional centers across the nation and in Puerto Rico, including community colleges, four-year colleges and universities, high schools, national laboratories, and industry, to accomplish goals that include program improvement, professional development, national networking, and school-to-career awareness and implementation.

The Scan

Comfort of Home

The Guardian reports that AstraZeneca is to run more clinical trials from people's homes with the aim of increasing participant diversity.

Keep Under Control

Genetic technologies are among the tools suggested to manage invasive species and feral animals in Australia, Newsweek says.

Just Make It

The New York Times writes that there is increased interest in applying gene synthesis to even more applications.

Nucleic Acids Research Papers on OncoDB, mBodyMap, Genomicus

In Nucleic Acids Research this week: database to analyze large cancer datasets, human body microbe database, and more.