UB's Center of Excellence Will Investigate Complex Diseases

Collaborative research, aggressive commercialization plan will lead to new medical treatments and spin-off companies

Release Date: June 2, 2006

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Gov. George Pataki and Bruce Holm, executive director of the New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences, discuss the collaborative research made possible by the opening of the center. (Photo: Adam Koniak)

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- By bringing together talented researchers from related scientific disciplines in an environment that fosters collaboration and innovation, the New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences will focus its resources on developing new treatments for serious and complex diseases.

The goal of the center's collaborative research is the creation of diagnostic tools, therapies, treatments and medical devices to improve health care and alleviate human suffering. In turn, these medical discoveries will be transferred for commercialization to new and existing companies in Buffalo Niagara, helping to transform the region into a hub of life-sciences research, according to Bruce A. Holm, University at Buffalo senior vice provost and executive director of the Center of Excellence, a major research center of UB.

Working in teams, Center of Excellence scientists will target three disease areas: cancers, such as melanoma and lung cancer; inflammatory diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease; and neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's, stroke and multiple sclerosis. The center's anti-infectives team will target viruses important in human disease and biodefense.

The Center of Excellence also will be home to the Hunter James Kelly Research Institute, focusing on research into Krabbe Disease, the fatal nervous system disorder that affected the late son of former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly and his wife, Jill.

Other research teams within the center will focus on pharmacotherapy, nanomedicine, tissue engineering and population health genetics.

The center's bioinformatics group will interact with all of the center's scientists, and will focus on the analysis of complex biological data critical to understanding the human body and the function of disease. Its work will be supported by the immense computational power of UB's Center for Computational Research -- one of the nation's largest academic supercomputing centers -- which will occupy the center's first floor.

With its emphasis on collaboration and commercialization, the center possesses all of the resources necessary to bring scientific discoveries quickly from lab to market, Holm says. "The Center of Excellence represents a concentrated effort to keep new medical breakthroughs and technologies in Buffalo Niagara," he explains. "We want to develop a large pipeline of medical treatments and devices coming out of the region."

The Center of Excellence is aggressively recruiting talented scientists, Holm notes. A handful of important hires were made prior to the building's opening and an additional 20 researchers and their staffs will be recruited to the center. At capacity, the center will hold more than 200 researchers, including current UB scientists affiliated with the center. Staffing of the center will be tied closely to the strategic strengths identified in the UB 2020 strategic planning process.

Scientist Steven Gill was recruited to the Center of Excellence in 2005 from The Institute for Genomics Research in Rockville, Md. He was attracted to the center's collaborative research model.

"These types of environments stimulate the emergence of new ideas and novel approaches," says Gill, a UB associate professor of oral biology who is working to identify bacterial genes associated with infectious diseases. "The concept of the center is not the typical university model," he adds. "There are examples of other research institutes that have used a similar model and have been extremely successful."

To assist researchers like Gill, a network of commercialization organizations, such as Buffalo BioSciences, will reside in the Center of Excellence. Their presence will accelerate commercialization of technologies produced by the center's scientists.

According to Holm, the Center of Excellence intends to establish quickly a national record of success by continually spinning off start-up companies and products while working toward highly lucrative discoveries and ventures. Several new start-up companies already have been produced by the Center of Excellence, including Holm's Pneuma Partners, which makes drugs for respiratory illness, and Empire Genomics, which provides testing for genetic abnormalities and was developed by Norma J. Nowak, director of science and technology at the Center of Excellence.

Though there are several regions in the country competing to become the next big biotech hub, Holm says Buffalo Niagara has strategic advantages: The existence of three long-standing major research institutes -- UB and its research partners in the Center of Excellence, Roswell Park Cancer Institute and Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute -- gives the region national credibility and provides an opportunity to recruit a "critical mass" of talented scientists whose presence will create a buzz about the Buffalo Niagara life-sciences industry.

Also, the region's proximity to Toronto's biotech hub will encourage cross-border research collaboration and entrée to international markets. What is more, the relative affordability of real estate in Buffalo Niagara, coupled with a low-cost of living, should be attractive to young researchers and outside industry, including overseas businesses.

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John DellaContrada
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