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$16.5M Blais Gift Will Establish Dana-Farber Proteomics Center From the Ground Up


A $16.5 million gift from John "Jack" Blais and Shelley Blais to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for the establishment of a new proteomics center will be spent mostly on capital equipment and supporting about 18 to 25 new staff scientists, according to Jarrod Marto, the director of the new center.

"Because the footprint of proteomics in this institution was pretty modest, it's not as if we're going to augment an existing center," said Marto, who has been at the Dana-Farber for a little over a year. "We're really going to be building this from the ground up."

Marto said the institute plans on purchasing mass spectrometers, sample-handling equipment, robotics, separation science equipment, small benchtop equipment, and "pretty much everything, from soup to nuts" for the new Blais Proteomics Center.

The new high-throughput proteomic equipment will be housed in the institute's Burlington Avenue site, while the computational support facilities will be housed in the institute's Smith building, Marto said.

"The idea was to bring proteomics to Dana-Farber, to work in tandem with other large-scale efforts in the investigation of cancer, and to support the vast array of individual PIs who may need proteomics with some frequency in their own research," said Marto.

Marto's own lab focuses on using proteomics to find molecular markers for cancer. The researchers are particularly interested in studying transcription factors and kinases, Marto said.

"Because the footprint of proteomics in this institution was pretty modest, it's not as if we're going to augment an existing center."

Before joining Dana-Farber, Marto worked for four and a half years at MDS Proteomics, which changed its name to Protana last year before being acquired by Transition Therapeutics last month. Prior to that, Marto was a postdoc in Don Hunt's laboratory at the University of Virginia. Before that, he was a PhD student in Alan Marshall's lab at Ohio State University.

Marto said that Dana-Farber leaders embarked upon a strategy to ramp up the presence of proteomics within the institute about three or four years ago.

"The idea was to take proteomics beyond an individual PI's laboratory," said Marto.

Jack Blais has been a trustee of Dana-Farber since 2002. He is the founder and president of BlaisCo, a Framingham, Mass.-based holding company that specializes in high-technology firms. Blais has a background in the precision optics industry, and led companies that developed optical and optical interference technologies for military, medical, and commercial applications.

Marto said Blais was "in tune" with the Dana-Farber's strategic plan to ramp up proteomics. Last year, Marto, together with Blais and Barrett Rollins, the chief scientific officer of Dana-Farber, put together a proposal to establish the center.

Blais did not return calls for comment, but said in a statement that protein research "truly has the potential to unlock the mysteries of cancer in our lifetime, and to provide the hope of cures for cancer patients worldwide."

Before donating the $16.5 million for the new proteomics center, the Blais family had given the Dana-Farber institute about $15 million. In addition, the Blaises donated $21 million in 2001 to the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.

Earlier this year, the Blaises also contributed more than $15 million to purchase naming rights on the New England Patriots' indoor practice facility at Gillette Stadium. They chose to name the facility the Dana-Farber Field House.

"The Blaises' generosity is inspiring and overwhelming," said Marto.

Marto said that he and his colleagues will soon be posting ads to hire scientists for the new proteomics center. They will be looking for scientists with expertise in analytical science, bioinformatics, or software development.

As part of the new center, John Quackenbush, a professor of computational biology and bioinformatics at Dana-Farber, will lead a small computational group in dealing specifically with proteomic data (See Proteomics Pioneer).

"He will play a key role in terms of thinking about creative ways to combine multiple orthogonal or disparate data sets from proteomics, microarrays, and other types of experiments," said Marto.

Marto said that there are a number of other proteomics facilities within a 10-block area of the Dana-Farber, including facilities within Harvard Medical School and the Children's Hospital Boston. However, the demand for proteomics capabilities still outstrips the supply, he said.

"Proteomics is in such high demand in these medical research environments, that with any type of facility you set up, you'll have no problem finding people who want to use it," said Marto. "Our first priority will be to serve the Dana-Farber community, but we'll also work with the people in the greater Boston community."

Marto said that many Dana-Farber researchers have projects that they would like to pursue collaboratively, and the new proteomics center will provide much more sophisticated tools than they have access to currently. However,Marto did not disclose any specific research projects that will take advantage of the resources at the Blais Proteomics Center.

"There's a lot of excitement and a lot of buzz, but it's a little too early to say we've mapped out specific research projects that we want to do," Marto said.

— Tien-Shun Lee ([email protected])

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