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Q&A: Chief of NY Medical Development Group Describes Efforts to Mold a Biocluster in the State


Hours before the New York state Senate descended on June 8 into a chaotic power struggle that has continued to hobble the functioning of state government, Gov. David Paterson addressed an audience at the New York Academy of Sciences in which he said that the state should grow its life-sciences industry, among other high-tech sectors, if it is to wean itself off of Wall Street and manufacturing revenue.

While Paterson's vision for the state economy, laid out in Bold Steps to A New Economy: A Jobs Plan for the People of New York, would seem obvious, it has only been in recent years that the state's academic and research institutions have come together to put his words, and similar talks by three predecessors, into any sort of practice.

One institution that has devoted itself to bringing New York's disparate life-sci stakeholders together over the past decade has been the Academy for Medical Development and Collaboration, or AMDeC. The New York City-based nonprofit has focused on advancing biomedical research through collaborative efforts that include:

• The New York Cancer Project, which recruited 20,000 New Yorkers of various backgrounds for a study intended to examine the long-term interplay between environment and genetics, and the causes of cancer and other major diseases. The project generated a repository of more than 19,000 samples of DNA, now housed at Rutgers University.

• The Integrated Translational Genomics program or InTraGen, a web-based platform for sharing data from the New York Cancer Project, including gene expression, protein, and clinical information.

• A bioinformatics core research facility housed at Columbia University’s Genome Center and working with the State University at Buffalo’s Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics. The facility uses high-throughput computing to study DNA sequences that reduce or increase susceptibility to specific diseases.

• The ROAD project, for Reducing Obesity and Diabetes in children. Five institutions — Columbia University Medical Center, Maimonides Medical Center, Mount Sinai, North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, and Winthrop University Hospital — have teamed with five schools to recruit more than 700 children to explore the genetic predisposition to type-2 diabetes, and create programs for the schools aimed at reducing obesity and the risk of developing type-2 diabetes.

• A shared-use mouse facility in planning stages for a former industrial building in Yonkers, NY, to be operated by Taconic Farms. The site would start with 20,000 cages of mice, then expand over time to 30,000 cages. The project has won an $8.5 million commitment from state government, and is pursuing a $4.5 million grant from the US Economic Development Agency, and a $2 million award through Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

AMDeC plans to expand the mouse facility to 30,000 cages through $5 million the group hopes to obtain through the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic stimulus measured enacted in February by President Obama.

AMDeC President and CEO Maria Mitchell recently discussed with BioRegion News her organization's progress over the past decade, its continuing challenges, and the broader challenge of helping knit the Empire State's life-sci research centers and companies into a more cohesive biocluster. Following is an edited transcript of that interview:

What factors led to the creation of AMDeC some 10 years ago?

Some of the heads of the hospitals here got together back in 1987, and were talking about why New York was declining, because New York used to be at the top. About a decade ago, they decided to do something to change that. And that something was AMDeC. I was recruited to start AMDeC. I was working at the mayor's office at the time. The idea was to pull together all these competitive institutions. We have this unusual geographic density of these world-class research institutions. They were not working together; they were working competitively, and rather than thinking of themselves as competing with other regions, they were competing among each other. And everybody said at the time, 'If you can get these folks to work together, you can create a region that's second to none.'

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And that really has been the goal of AMDeC. It was started as a [New York] City-focused organization, and then very shortly thereafter, branched out to be statewide. We have members in Buffalo, Rochester, Albany, and Long Island. We have the medical schools, plus institutions like [Memorial] Sloan-Kettering [Cancer Center], Rockefeller [University], Cold Spring Harbor [Laboratory]. We now have 28 institutions. Our goal and focus has been to foster collaboration among these institutions, and get them to work together to bring us to the top.

Sitting in the rooms here, and listening to the ideas and the things that people are talking about, and this is separate and aside from state funding, this goes to the fact that the state ought to be interested in what AMDeC does, period. We recently convened here all of the directors who oversee the core facilities in an institution, to talk about purchasing agreements, vendor agreements, new, open platforms. The willingness of these institutions to collaborate is greater than I've seen since AMDeC started.

How much of that is a survival issue, because now they're finding it harder to raise money?

I think it's two-fold. I think the economy is definitely driving a lot of that. I think the fact that in the beginning, AMDeC was new, nobody really knew what it was. I remember when I took the job, I thought, I have nowhere to go but up, because [the region's research institutions] do nothing together. Something has to be better than nothing. Nobody knew if we'd even be around in the very beginning.

I think it's the combination of our track record and success with getting these collaborations going, along with the economy, and the times, and the status of NIH funding, and the expense of technology. When you look at the expense of next-gen sequencing, and the fact that technology changes so quickly, for an institution to invest tens of millions of dollars in technology that's going to be different in two years, the timing of collaborating and sharing those resources just makes sense for everybody.

Those are the kinds of things that we're doing with our institutions, that don’t have anything to do with the state. But the fact that we do them makes them more efficient, and more competitive and more viable. So the state ought to be interested in AMDeC just for that reason.

Do I understand from you that there's no state or New York City subsidy to AMDeC right now?

There is none right now

How much in state money do AMDeC and its member institutions need from Albany?

For InTraGen, we asked for $15 million. They asked to scale it back. We scaled it back to $10 million.

Where does that request stand now with the state?

The last time we heard, about two months ago they said, we should look to NIH for funding — which, again, makes no sense at all. InTraGen does not really fit into the kinds of grants that [NIH] has. It's something that was created like TGen in Arizona. That wasn't funded by a federal grant. Or when Scripps created its place in Florida — they're not the sort of things that the NIH funds. They are state or private funded, and then they build a platform to attain federal funding, or private funding.

How much state funding would be needed for the diabetes project?

[For] the diabetes project, we're looking at $5 [million] to $6 million over three years. We held roundtables for two years. It grew out of the fact that while New York state is very progressive in electronic medical records issues, nobody was looking at how researchers were going to access medical records. InTraGen is a translational research platform that started with getting genomic data on a web-based platform. The ideas was to make genetic and clinical data available to researchers, and [the project] was actually the end of that continuum. The beginning was getting these genotype samples on the web. The end is getting the clinical data and having that available, with having a genetic repository down the road that would get tissue and other genetic data available. It was a very broad, long-term initiative.

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Given the economy, and assuming state government starts to function again, what can the state do absent money to get the life-sci industry going?

While it is an extremely difficult economic time, and I think everybody understands that, there is stimulus money available. And we have another project that fits very well into the health/information technology area, [namely tracking diabetes by] using electronic medical records, getting private institutions that would record and maintain data, and download them into servers that could be accessed universally, or information about diabetes, which falls both into health information technology and comparative effectiveness. The health department is actually very interested in this. And Rachel Block [deputy commissioner of health information technology for the New York state Department of Health] has been, even before being at the state, very supportive. And Commissioner [Richard] Daines has been very supportive of that.

So I think that when we have things that very neatly fit into a box, it makes it easier for them. Our stuff doesn’t fit neatly into a box. And I think creating a better box, at the state level, so when we have things that are innovative, creative, and jobs-creating, they can say, 'Oh yes, you belong here,' instead of [AMDeC] going from agency to agency, [and hearing officials] saying, 'We can't quite figure out where you belong.'

How much of that is due to the turmoil at Empire State Development, which has seen four heads named by three governors in the past three years?

It certainly isn't helpful. I think it's two things: The change in the leadership. It's difficult to get a champion when your champion leaves, and somebody new takes their place. I think some of it is also, economic development folks are not typically – they're more traditional bricks-and-mortar projects that are appealing, and straight manufacturing jobs that come out of it directly, and trying to move the whole ethos to something that's more technology driven.

And I think the other thing is, during the [George] Pataki administration, there was a lot of focus on biotech, if you will. And I think the argument that needs to be understood is that without the investment in the academic enterprise that's already very strong here, it's going to be very difficult to build a brand new biotech sector, even though there are more biotech jobs and companies here than people think about.

The underpinning of all of it is the academic enterprise. And as we've seen, increasingly the trend for pharmaceutical companies working more and more closely with the academic side, farming out a lot of the early stuff, the partnership is essential. And pharmaceutical companies, biotech companies come to where the investigators and where the best researchers are. Our argument has been, you have to invest in this academic enterprise to recruit and retain the best scientists, and that's what attracts the business side. We have been quite successful and were successful in getting funds for the mouse facility. But in the last several years, we're making kind of circular progress.

On the mouse facility, why did AMDeC scale back the facility from 30,000 to 20,000 cages?

One of the difficulties in working with multiple institutions is getting them all on the same page at the same time. And cage demand goes up and down, depending on the researchers that are there. So, for example, Rockefeller is participating financially, and doesn’t have an immediate cage demand. Two of their biggest mouse users left. So given the way the budget was fluctuating for the mouse facility, we decided to start at a smaller site. The space is there to expand to 40,000 cages if we need it.

That would be for all AMDeC institutions to use?

They could all use it. And actually, we could rent space to outside-of-AMDeC institutions as well. Taconic and AMDeC right now are developing a marketing road show to get other institutions to learn about this facility since it is so efficient. The reason for getting cage demand up is, the more cages you're using, the cheaper it is to run. It's like running an apartment building.

How do you rent space: By the number of cages or a square footage?

By the number of cages. It would be as if you were going to a commercial vivarium, only this is an AMDeC vivarium.

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How much funding would be needed from the state for the cancer program you mentioned, or the youth program?

The diabetes project we funded through the Starr Foundation. [Former chairman and CEO of American International Group] Hank Greenberg was the chairman of our board, so the Starr Foundation has been very generous to AMDeC. It was a $5 million funding from the Starr Foundation.

If I could just go on another tangent for a second: We did a strategic plan for genomics research in New York about eight or nine years ago. And that was because — and this was when we were doing the cancer project. The investigators said, 'This is going to be great. We're going to have all this DNA, and we don't have the technology to really — we're going to be sending the blood to Boston.' So we came up with a strategic plan, had the best researchers in New York, from Rockefeller [University], Columbia [University], everywhere, we came up with this plan.

One of the ideas was to develop core facilities that would share resources and technology. So we put a bioinformatics core at Columbia. We developed a microwave research center out of the University of Rochester. That was, again, $5 million from the Starr Foundation, which we then leveraged the state — Pataki did give us $5 million; it was the only time we got actual money out of the governor's office. That money leveraged about $98 million in grants from those institutions, only in the next three to four years.

That's for the entire Genomic Research Center or just the Rochester facility?

Rochester coordinated all the microarray cores around the state. It was about 14 institutions. So in the first three years of what was about $5 million that went toward that, maybe $4 million. In the first three years, they generated $19 million in grant funding from that microarray and resource center. The bioinformatics core [facility] at Columbia was a little less than $5 million there.

The bottom line is, we get this little bit of money, and it's all leveraged into much larger resources for these institutions.

Can't the funding sought by AMDeC be obtained from existing state agencies?

One of the frustrations for us, and to some degree I think folks working in the state, is that we've gone to [the state Empire State Development Corp.]. We talk to that department. We talk to [The New York State Foundation for Science and Technology Research, also known as] NYSTAR. Everybody's very enthusiastic about our promise. But there's no appropriate funding stream for biomedical research. It sort of falls a little bit here and there. We spent a year and a half with [Empire State] Development with a project called InTraGen, that would take the cancer project samples, genotype them, and make them available on a web-based platform, which was two and a half years ago when we started talking about it. It was very cutting-edge, ahead of the curve. Our argument was, let's be up-front, ahead of things in New York state, and not playing catch-up. And as time goes on, it's less and less cutting edge.

What did AMDeC think of Gov. Paterson's remarks last month on fostering more life-sciences and other technology activity?

That's why we've been looking to the state for funding: The governor has now talked about collaboration inspiring research. But simply adding 10 percent to a federal grant is not what's going to get us there. AMDeC doesn't compete with its members to go for NIH funding.

In fact, AMDeC has been doing exactly what he described he would like to be done. And it's a bit of a source of frustration to us that we're not getting funded for the kinds of things that really do help foster and keep collaboration going. We have a number of great successes and success stories to talk about. And we have things that are waiting to be funded. We'd love for New York state, which has historically — if they've funded research at all — grossly underfunded this whole research enterprise. And that has been going on for at least 15 years. That's what we've been working very hard to change.

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The idea for us is to do collaborative projects that are pre-competitive, that advantage all the institutions, to help them to create a springboard for increased funding for those institutions. I think we've been extremely forward-thinking, and a lot of times ahead of the curve, in trying to get the state to focus on that as well.

Obviously this is a difficult time economically, on the one hand. And on the other hand, we really thought that this would be a great time for funding AMDeC's sort-of shovel-ready projects because of the federal stimulus money.

In return for that funding, how many jobs does AMDeC envision its projects generating?

We had this economic impact study done that showed there would be up to 200 jobs created from this [InTraGen] program. The mouse facility is also jobs, 200 to 250, the first 75 of which are manufacturing. So here we have these shovel-ready projects ready to create jobs, and everybody's trying to figure out how to fund them, or where to fund them from.

Why can't the institutions, either on their own or collaboratively, just apply for ARRA, given the facilities grants and other funding opportunities coming up?

The way it works applying for NIH dollars, then it's everybody's looking for their own money and their own funding and their own labs. One of the reasons AMDeC was so hopeful, and there's nothing else like it, is because we're neutral. We're trying to put things together that help all the institutions equally. As much as we talked earlier about the parts being greater than the whole, individually, on a day-to-day basis, no institution cares about the whole, not inappropriately, not unlike every other institution in the country. Someone else has to care about the whole.

If we want New York state to be at top of that [top-]10 [list], then there has got to be resources put in at the state level. It can't all come from NIH, because NIH funds what's sort of already established and done. We're trying to do things that are new and innovative and creative, and create an infrastructure for all of the institutions equally, so they're not competing with each other; they're taking their resources together and competing with other regions. And if they're putting their own money in to go for grants, they're not going to look to fund and spend time writing grants for other institutions. And that's why AMDeC works: We're looking for funding for everybody equally.

Has AMDeC looked at the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center or agencies in any other states as a possible model for New York?

The Massachusetts model — first of all, Massachusetts as a state has funded enormously biomedical research and the biosciences. Their governor [Deval Patrick] last year signed his $1 billion bill for the life sciences. You put that kind of money at something — the model is almost secondary with that much money.

You mentioned Maryland: Johns Hopkins is the only game in Maryland, and so it allows their Congressional members to advocate for big resources. Hopkins is the number-one recipient of NIH funding. Again, they have a state where elected officials can focus on one institution.

Even in Massachusetts, you have Harvard and MIT. We have so many institutions, it makes it difficult for elected officials, whether local or national, to advocate for single institutions. And so, again, from the state's perspective, state funding through AMDeC creates a vehicle for advancing the life sciences. One of the things that we came to see is that funding pre-competitive kinds of things, like InTraGen, which is a pre-competitive translational research platform, makes [securing funding] politically easier to do, makes it politically, I think, appealing. You get to take credit in cities all over this state. And it helps all the institutions to be more competitive for national funding, which is what you're really looking for — it is to take some state money, and be able to leverage a lot of federal funding.

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