When the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine announced its dozen winners of a total $271 million in grants for new research facilities statewide last month, academic institutions accounted for all but one of the winners — though one of those winners, the San Diego Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, weds the University of California, San Diego, with three research institutes: The Burnham Institute for Medical Research, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and the Scripps Research Institute.
Only one of the 12 successful applicants seeking CIRM funding for new stem cell facilities was from outside California’s academic community. The Buck Institute for Age Research was approved for $20.5 million in seed funding from the state’s stem cell research agency toward a “CIRM Center of Excellence.” The 65,708-square-foot center would be Buck’s second research facility and would rise on the institute’s Novato campus.
At $41 million, the cost of the CIRM center exceeds Buck Institute’s annual budget of $32 million. More than half of Buck’s revenues (59 percent) come from federal grants, while 18 percent come from private philanthropy and foundation grants, another 18 percent from an allocation of the Buck Trust, and the remaining 5 percent from other revenue sources, including interest and technology.
James Kovach, the Buck Institute’s president and COO, recently discussed the planned facility and the institute’s challenge of expanding its research effort with BioRegion News.
What is the institute’s timing for breaking ground and completing the CIRM Center of Excellence?
We’re looking at this fall. The plan is for breaking ground September, and completion in July of 2010.
What is the current status of the project?
We can go directly to permits; the plot is construction-ready.
Where on the Novato campus would the CIRM center be built?
It’s on an I.M. Pei[-designed] campus that has four identical, 60,000-square-foot research buildings, and one administrative building. Currently, we have the administrative building and one of the research buildings built. So the new building would be attached to the existing research building, looking like a mirror image of it. We’ll work off of plans that exist and we’ll use the same construction techniques [as the first research building], so we’ve been through the drill once, which gives us a really high [amount of] confidence that we’ll meet the two-year deadline. It’s pretty ambitious, but I’m highly confident we’ll get it done.
How would the center tie in to the existing research building?
The existing building is home to eight of our faculty currently. In that building, we conduct research in basically three circles: The biology of aging — we do a lot of model organism work using yeast and fly and worm, looking at genetic alterations and linking them to extended life span; and then overlapping them with research in specific human diseases, primarily neurodegenerative diseases. We have faculty members working with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s diseases; and stroke. That existing building is home to mitochondrial research. There’s some very strong correlation [between] mitochondrial dysfunction [and] aging and age-associated disease.
What, if any, existing stem cell work is carried out there?
We do a little bit of stem cell work in the existing building as well, so this will really allow us to build out substantially in a program on stem cells and aging that we’ve started here but really want to expand.
What particular aging disorders will Buck study at the new center?
We’re primarily interested in the linkage between biological aging and chronic diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and cancer. We’d eventually like to go into cardiovascular disease and diabetes. It’s a less-than-well-known fact that age is essentially a risk factor for the disease itself. With cancer, a 60-year-old has a 64 times greater chance of getting cancer than the 30-year-old for no other reason than age.
We think the link between aging and getting diseases has really been underappreciated. It’s really looking at healthy populations earlier, and then understanding the aging process so that you can delay it. By delaying the aging process, we believe you’ll delay the onset of virtually every chronic disease in parallel. We refer to it as the longevity dividend [that results] if you can help people avoid chronic diseases, particularly in the 60s and 70s, so that essentially people live a healthy life — the clinical reference to that is compressing morbidity. We’re not about life extension per se. We’re about enhancing and increasing the health span.
The institute’s announcement said the new CIRM center would accommodate as many as 12 new principal investigators working on stem cell research and their laboratories. Is that in addition to current investigators, and how are they now accommodated?
Right now we have an investigator starting June 2, who will be our seventeenth faculty member. And we have space in the existing research building. We’ve retrofitted the building to include 20,000 square feet of scientific space. In the existing campus we can get about 23 faculty members. During the timeframe of the two-year cycle for building the [CIRM Center] building, we will be increasing the occupancy of the existing space, and we’ll get to 23 to 25 from our 17 right now. They are in bioinformatics; they are scientists, but they don’t really need wet-lab space. They just need computing space.
So the new building, if we can get 25 in the existing space, will get us close to a total of 40 faculty [members] on the campus. Starting in July 2010 is when we would go on and start recruiting stem cell scientists.
In calculating the dollar-per-square-foot cost, dividing $41 million by the project’s 65,708 square feet yields almost $624 psf. Yet the announcement cites a figure of $608 psf, and contrasts that with the average cost for all 12 CIRM grant winners of $934 psf. What accounts for the lower projected cost?
To obtain the psf amount in the grant, we backed out the [approximately] $1.9 million in equipment which was a part of the application. I don’t have the specific number, but that’s how we arrived at our $608/square foot cost.
The cost of the new facility is $41 million, half of which is covered by the CIRM grant. How much additional fundraising will be required, and what is the status of that effort?
We’re entrepreneurial and we’re younger. We don’t have quite as mature a philanthropic base as some of our peer institutions like the Stanfords and the [University of California San Francisco]s. But we are very entrepreneurial and looking at primarily three ways to build the building. One is, it’s a spectacular campus, and we’ve gotten a lot of interest from developers that would seek to do joint ventures. And since it’s a separate lot, essentially, it is possible to build it through a separate 501( c)3; that’s a possibility. We’re looking at restructuring or obtaining a bond, essentially, to finance it ourselves. And the third [option] would be looking at possible ways to engage either the biotechnology [community] to take some of it, take a proportion of it and lease it, to entities in conjunction with our financing it ourselves.
We could get it built through debt financing, but then the bigger issue is how to get it occupied quickly. We’re talking with just a variety of constituents, including doing outreach to other universities in the region, to see if there might be interest in collaborating. Our focus is always going to be aging and age research. But in terms of connectivity to specific diseases, there could be some interesting alliances that we build. So we’re basically exploring all options.
Venture philanthropy is another avenue, [but] it’s hard to predict that we would be able to excite the passion of someone so much that a philanthropist really saw a program in our area as one that was exciting enough to really join forces with us. But that’s a possibility that we’re trying to explore. The philanthropic community has been very strong, especially in embryonic stem cell research. And we believe our building could be — if we can get going quickly — the first or very close to the first new space up. That’s going to be our goal, certainly. Our goal is to certainly be the first entirely new building based on these stem cell facility grants.