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Federal Funds to Support Infrastructure at New Penn State PGx Center

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center will open its new Center for Pharmacogenetics later this year, using $3.2 million in federal funds recently appropriated for the facility, the institute's director said Friday.

"The money will pay for infrastructure support in terms of data managers and research nurses that will help us accrue patients to the studies," as well as "perhaps maybe some statistical help," Tom Loughran, director of the cancer institute, told GenomeWeb Daily News.

Hiring is projected to take place in the spring or summer. The number of employees, and their specialties, will be better known as the center finalizes its research specialties and can project patient volumes. "Probably we'll start out by hiring maybe five or six people," Loughran said in an interview.

He also said the pharmacogenetics center is expected to attract "ballpark, to start with, 20 or so" scientists — from physicians based at the medical center campus in Hershey, Pa., where the cancer institute is located, to researchers based either there or at Penn State's main campus about 100 miles northwest in University Park, Pa.

The researchers will include bioinformatics professionals, biochemists, biostatisticians, geneticists, genomics researchers, molecular biologists, and pharmacologists. The extent of scientist and physician interest in the pharmacogenetics center will be better known following a workshop to take place in the next month.

"We really aren't going to be adding any new investigators" for the pharmacogenetics center, Loughran said, even as the cancer institute continues to recruit researchers for its own work.

While many additional details remain to be worked out, he added, the cancer institute anticipates receiving funding for the pharmacogenetics center "in the next few months."

"It will start this year. We anticipate starting in the next three months," Loughran said.

He spoke four days after joining administrators of the medical center and US Rep. Tim Holden (D-Schuylkill County) in announcing the federal funding for the center. Holden, who is up for re-election this year and faces a possible primary as well as a likely Republican challenge, included the money as an earmark within the US Department of Defense Appropriation for the 2010 fiscal year, which was announced last week.

However, the $3.2 million is less than half of the $7.5 million originally requested by Holden.

As a result, the center is developing plans to start operations by focusing on selected forms of cancer — breast cancer, lung cancer and leukemia — rather than immediately study all forms of the disease. Over time, however, the cancer institute has flexibility to shift the center's funding and staff to study different diseases should research suggest such a need, Loughran said.

"The major impact is we need to be more focused in our efforts," he said.

Holden previously secured through earmarks more than $30 million for the cancer institute, toward equipping its $153 million, 185,000-square-foot facility, which opened last July 13.

Philip Lazarus, the cancer institute's associate director, will serve as director of the pharmacogenetics center. Lazarus also serves as the institute's program leader for cancer control and population sciences, as well as a professor of pharmacology and public health sciences at Penn State Hershey College of Medicine.

Loughran said the center will build upon Lazarus' research, which has focused on how inherited genes interact with the environment to either trigger or lead to increased risk of cancer, as well as how different individuals respond to therapeutics, leading to varied outcomes.

The center will house the cancer institute's samples, and serve as a resource and research center for translational studies focused on oncology drugs and prevention approaches. Specimens from the repository will be used to study individual responses to therapeutic drugs and environmental toxins, in efforts to identify gene variations that could serve as markers for these traits, and could then be used to develop or tailor treatments to individuals.

Penn State Hershey will carry out pharmacogenetics research for the US Department of Defense National Functional Genomics Center, a network of partnerships among the DoD, universities, and companies established in 2002 to stimulate translational research intended to help diagnose and treat cancer.

After speaking to counterparts within NFGC, Loughran said, he anticipates the cancer institute will spend its appropriation over three years, as has been the case when other consortium members received federal funds directed toward research.

Roughly $2 million of the $3.2 million will be used toward direct costs, the remainder for indirect costs — about the same proportion as with a regular research grant, he said.

"We hope to be able to continue funding down the road," Loughran added.

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