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With $1B Life Sciences Funding Bill Pending, UMMS Preps for New RNAi Tx Research Center

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Although Massachusetts’ proposed $1 billion Life Sciences Initiative was only just submitted for approval to the state’s legislature, the University of Massachusetts Medical School is already moving forward with a new RNAi research center that is expected to receive significant funding under the legislation, a UMMS official told RNAi News this week.
 
According to UMMS Dean Terry Flotte, funding under the initiative isn’t expected to start becoming available until the fall at the earliest, but in the meantime, “we’re going to move forward with our own discretionary funding” as part of a temporary plan that includes hiring five to ten new independent investigators focused on RNAi research.
 
The medical school has also begun putting together a search committee that will recruit a director for the planned RNAi research center with the goal of selecting a candidate by the spring of next year, he said.
 
Confidence in State Funding
 
In May, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick announced that he would submit a bill to the legislature requesting $1 billion over 10 years to grow the state’s life sciences sector. Part of that bill, which was submitted for approval late last month (see RNAi News, 7/26/2007), calls for the creation of the RNAi Therapeutics Center at UMMS in Worcester to “highlight and build on the work” of Nobel Prize-winning RNAi pioneer Craig Mello.
 
Although it is not known when or if the bill will be passed, or how much of the $1 billion the RNAi center would receive, “we’re moving forward at UMass Medical School with confidence that the state will come through with a significant part of the investment,” Flotte said.
 
Should the Life Sciences Initiative be approved, allocation of the $1 billion will be the responsibility of Massachusetts’ Life Sciences Center, which was created last year to oversee all state funding for life sciences initiatives.
 
Members of the center’s decision-making board include Daniel O’Connell, Massachusetts’ secretary of housing and economic development; Jack Wilson, president of the University of Massachusetts; Jay Gonzalez, the state’s assistant secretary for capital finance and intergovernmental affairs; Marc Beer, president and CEO of biotech firm ViaCell; and Micheline Mathews-Roth, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
 
“That board will have the authority to spell out exactly how much money comes to the University of Massachusetts,” Flotte said. “I don’t know with a lot of precision [exactly how much the RNAi center will be allocated], but [in the near term] … we will put up our own investment from flexible monies generated out of this campus.”
 
That initial investment, which Flotte said could be as much as $5 million to $10 million over the next two years, will fund a temporary plan that includes renovating existing UMMS space in Biotech Park for five to ten new independent investigators, each with their own labs.
 
“Our goal is to recruit five to ten new outside individuals and use the space as a draw to recruit those people,” Flotte said. RNAi researchers already at the school are expected to remain in their current locations.
 
“The RNAi researchers we have here now are all in good quality lab space, [so] we hadn’t seen a need to move them,” he noted, “but we’re relying on them to be collaborators to the individuals who come in.”
 
Flotte said that renovations on the temporary space in Biotech Park are expected to be ready for new faculty members as early as December.
 
“The near-term plan [is] to get the first handful of [researchers] in place here and get moving,” he said. “As far as how much [temporary] space we’ll be able to put together, it’s not clear yet, but we will move forward with what we have.”
 
Over the long term, Flotte said that UMMS hopes to be able to build a new facility that would house the RNAi Therapeutics Center and that the school could end up contributing as much as $100 million from its own coffers should a similar amount in funding be available from the state.
 
He cautioned, however, that when projecting over the long term, funding estimates “become much more speculative.”
 
Search and Employ
 

“It would not be out of the question to have someone with some industry experience [as director of the center, but] they would clearly have to be an academic individual in terms of things like publications, extramural funding, and a history of training doctoral students.”

Flotte said that while UMMS has begun preparations for the RNAi Therapeutics Center, details about how the research facility will operate, such as how much emphasis will be placed on RNAi therapeutics research as opposed to projects focusing on basic RNAi biology, will be handled by a yet-to-be-appointed director.
 
A key goal for UMMS, finding the appropriate person to lead the RNAi Therapeutics Center, is a task that will be handled by a search committee composed of around 10 members of the school’s staff, Flotte explained.
 
“We have begun the process of assembling a search committee, [but] haven’t finalized membership of the committee,” he said. UMMS researcher Phillip Zamore, who is one of the RNAi field’s best-known investigators, has agreed to chair the committee.
 
“We just met with [Zamore] and are going … to work through finding who is available” to be on the search team, Flotte said. “The committee will likely be … formally commissioned within the next month or so, and then I would expect us to go fairly quickly to … begin fielding applications.”
 
Zamore was unavailable for comment.
 
Flotte added that Mello is likely to be an important advisor to both the search committee and the RNAi Therapeutics Center, although he won’t necessarily have any formal position with either.
 
In looking for a director for the RNAi center, UMMS is hoping to find someone who is well established within academia, he said. At the same time, the ideal candidate would have had experience in the drug-development process, including the filing of investigational new drug applications and phase I trials of first-in-human therapies — something more common among those in industry.
 
“It would not be out of the question to have someone with some industry experience [as director of the center, but] they would clearly have to be an academic individual in terms of things like publications, extramural funding, and a history of training doctoral students,” he noted.
 
And while in a perfect world the new director would have had significant experience with RNAi, this isn’t an absolute requirement, Flotte added.
 
Good candidates “may be individuals who have the background directly related to RNAi or … individuals who might have had experience in what you might characterize more as gene therapy for most of their career,” he said. “We’re certainly looking for people who have made the move into RNAi if they come from another … background.”
 
Although Flotte hopes to see the directorship position filled by next spring, “we won’t fill it just to fill it by a certain deadline. We’re going to try to find the best possible person to fill the position,” he said.
 
“It will probably take us on the order of six months to identify the appropriate candidate, and we would try to get them on board as soon as possible,” he added. “We’re pretty much ready to move now.

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