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Conn. Clears $1.54B for UConn Science, Funding Systems Genomics Institute

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The Connecticut General Assembly has approved a plan to provide $1.54 billion over 10 years to fuel a large-scale effort to ramp up its scientific capacities, including providing funding for the Institute for Systems Genomics, or ISG.

The ISG, which was created in December, 2012, in anticipation of this round of funding, is an interdisciplinary virtual center that brings together UConn faculty members with investigators at the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, the $1.1 billion center that is being built on the campus of the UConn Health Center in Farmington.

The systems genomics institute will engage in projects involving human, animal, and environmental genomics and personalized medicine projects, and will bring together representatives from nine of the university's schools.

The new funding from the state was provided under the Next Generation Connecticut initiative, which is envisioned as a plan to enhance the state's academic science, technology, and engineering culture in a range of areas.

Under the Next Generation effort, UConn plans to build science, technology, engineering, and mathematics facilities to accomodate research in biology, genomics, physics, engineering, and other areas, and to renew and upgrade aging infrastructure such as labs, classrooms, and related facilities. The university also plans to hire 259 new faculty members who will teach STEM courses to around 6,600 additional undergraduate students.

The specific funding plans are being drafted now, so it is not immediately clear how much will be marked for the Institute for Systems Genomics and other biomedical research labs, along with the other programs, UConn Provost and Executive VP for Academic Affairs Mun Choi told GenomeWeb Daily News today.

Choi said that the ISG will be a partner to the Jackson lab, and that the two will serve as complementary hubs in Connecticut's future bioscience ecosystem.

"Systems genomics is an area that the university has already invested in quite heavily," Choi said, adding that ISG "will be about expanding our research and developing translational applications from the foundational research that we do at the university."

He said ISG's mission will be "to really push the frontiers of developing the type of interpretative and analytical tools to use genetic information that will eventually lead to personalized medicine. It really is a systems approach to studying genomics."

When it launched ISG at the end of 2012, UConn said the institute would have four initial focal areas. ISG also will seek to establish a new PhD program in computational genomics and biology, to produce tools to help inform the general public about the importance of genomics research, to foster genomics research across UConn's campuses, and to spur economic development within Connecticut.

"We want to bring as many faculty members who can contribute to this to participate in the effort of designing and growing ISG," Choi told GWDN, adding that the institute so far has been allocated 17 faculty members.

"Through this [Next Generation] program, we are going to have 260 new professors, so we are going to have a sizable number that go toward biomedical engineering and other areas like statistics and computer science that can contribute to systems genomics," he said.

Choi said that Marc Lalande, who is ISG's director and chair of Genetics and Developmental Biology at the UConn Health Center, has already found funding within the university and externally to develop advanced research consortiums that will work with UConn faculty and Jackson Lab faculty to pursue efforts that can lead to breakthroughs in systems genomics.

Having the Next Generation initiative lock in the funding for 10 years is a critical component of the program, Choi said.

"It gives us the opportunity to really bring up some big and bold visions, and to know that we have the commitment of the state and the university behind some breakthrough areas like genomics, or manufacturing, or neuroscience, is very exciting," he said.

Choi also said that now that the funding is set in place for buildings, equipment, and faculty, UConn will plan to leverage it to create more industry support.

"In this state, we have companies like Ion Torrent or 454 Life Sciences. But we also have insurance companies that are very interested in the opportunities of personalized medicine. And we also have pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Boehringer Ingelheim," he noted.

With this new investment by the state the university can grow its relationships with these and other companies and pursue new collaborations, Choi said.

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