With a $90 million funding commitment from the state in hand, the University of Massachusetts Medical School is one step closer to begin construction on its planned RNAi Therapeutics Institute, and expects to have chosen a director for the center as early as this fall, a UMMS official told RNAi News this week.
The school is also nearing selection of a management firm to oversee construction of the RNAi center, which is expected to be ready for occupancy in early 2012.
The funding is part of a law enacted last week by Gov. Deval Patrick that will set aside $1 billion over 10 years to grow the state’s life-sciences sector. Part of that bill, the Life Sciences Initiative, called for the creation of an RNAi Therapeutics Center at UMMS in Worcester to “highlight and build on the work” of Nobel Prize-winning RNAi pioneer Craig Mello.
Under the legislation, UMMS will use the $90 million to help create an Advanced Therapeutics Cluster that will house the RNAi Therapeutics Institute, as well as smaller centers for gene therapy, stem-cell biology, and regenerative medicine.
According to UMMS Dean Terry Flotte, the cluster will account for approximately half of a new campus facility, with the other half dedicated to “important translational research initiatives” including one being overseen by the school’s department of neurology.
Flotte told RNAi News this week that the $90 million will be in addition to $10 million already allocated by the state to establish a stem cell bank and registry at UMMS. Still, this $100 million will only cover a portion of the total costs associated with the Advanced Therapeutics Cluster, he noted.
“The total building cost … is $350 million,” he said, adding that the remaining $260 million in construction and equipment costs, as well as additional faculty and operating expenses generated after the center opens, will be footed by UMMS.
“We’ve been authorized by our board of trustees to borrow the remainder of the construction costs, and we’re moving forward right now … with selection of the project management firm, and then selection of the architectural and engineering firms,” Flotte said.
Currently, UMMS expects that the majority of the Advanced Therapeutics Cluster’s design work will be conducted throughout 2009, he noted. “We would [then] expect the construction to be substantially complete by the end of 2011, and we would expect occupancy sometime around March or April 2012.”
Flotte stressed that while UMMS has been able to meet its projected timelines with several recent construction projects, these are “always subject to change.”
As of yet, it is unclear exactly when UMMS will receive its funding from Massachusetts, which has 10 years to distribute the funds.
“This project is a go from our end. We have a lot of confidence that the money the bill provides for will come to us in a way that will enable timely completion of the building.”
“The way the law is written, [timing for distribution of the funding] is not really specified,” Flotte said. “There is broad latitude for the executive branch to allocate the money as it becomes available.”
Specifically, Massachusetts’ Life Sciences Center, which was created in 2006 to oversee all state funding for life science initiatives, is responsible for distributing the $1 billion provided by the legislation.
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.
Despite the uncertainty over timing of the funding, Flotte said he doesn’t expect that it will take the full 10 years for UMMS to receive the $90 million. “We have every reason to think that the money will come much sooner than that,” he said.
“This project is a go from our end,” he added. “We have a lot of confidence that the money the bill provides for will come to us in a way that will enable timely completion of the building” that will house the RNAi center.
But even before ground has been broken on the Advanced Therapeutics Cluster, UMMS is taking steps to set up the RNAi Therapeutics Institute and has recently renovated about 15,000 square feet within its Biotech Park as wet lab space for yet-to-be-recruited RNAi researchers.
Although Flotte had told RNAi News in 2007 that investigators hired to work within the RNAi Therapeutics Institute might be working in the Biotech Park space as early as December of that year (see RNAi News, 8/9/2007), this week he said that UMMS has redirected its focus on finding a director for the institute.
“We’re prioritizing the search for the director [over finding individual investigators] because, obviously, it’s more attractive a position if the director has the ability to do most or all the recruiting,” he explained.
Flotte said that a “number of very highly accomplished individuals from around the country” have applied for the position and have been interviewed, but he declined to name any of them.
He did, however, say that an ideal candidate would have experience not only with RNAi, particularly on the therapeutic and delivery aspects of the technology, but would also have a background in translational research.
“There are a few people like that out there, and like I said, many people have applied and some of the candidates we’ve seen are really at the top of the field,” Flotte said. “So we’re very optimistic” that a decision on a director will be made by the fall.
Last year, Flotte had said that UMMS researcher Phil Zamore, who is one of the best-known figures in the RNAi field, would chair the committee charged with finding a director for the institute. However, Michael Green, a professor of gene function and expression in the school’s molecular medicine program, has filled this position, Flotte said. He noted that Zamore continues to help with the search process.
In addition to selecting investigators for the RNAi institute, the new director will also oversee the center’s research activities. Still, Flotte said, UMMS has definite ideas about the areas of study that will be addressed at the center.
“We definitely want to have advancement of both the mechanistic science surrounding RNAi and therapeutics targeted at different disease models,” he said. “The real value in this [institute] will be that we’ll have some individuals working on some of the basic mechanisms of RNAi” in addition to therapeutics-focused research.
“That’s the mandate at this point, [but] the details will emerge with the selection of a director,” he added.