With a new genetics research lab set to open its doors next year, could Connecticut become the Silicon Valley of genomics and personalized medicine?
In the world of bioscience, genetics is the next big thing, and Connecticut is spending close to $300 million in an effort to become a world powerhouse in the field. Mapping the human genome has brought diagnosing disease to a whole new level: pinpointing genes that enable doctors to more reliably predict the course of a disease and to determine individual susceptibility and treatment.
Capitalizing—economically and medically— on the many discoveries sure to be mined from the human genome could mean a serious boost in both jobs and health-care breakthroughs.
“This is an extraordinarily promising development,” says Fred Carstensen, director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis at the University of Connecticut. “It’s the cluster effect. You get a workforce that is skilled in the kinds of things that you need.”
When the state announced in 2011 that Maine-based Jackson Laboratory planned to build a $145 million research facility on UConn’s campus, it generated excitement in scientific circles. The possible spinoff effect—something like 6,600 jobs in the next 20 years, from scientists and engineers to chefs—sent ripples through other industries.
In September, 46 scientists from UConn and Jackson met over two days to discuss their work in genomics. At the end of the symposium, UConn Provost Mun Choi said that the event provided “momentum—to do something really big.”
With Jackson Lab’s arrival, Carstensen is also thinking big— Silicon Valley big—with companies coming to take advantage of commercial potential of Jackson’s research. And those companies would then build off each other’s work.
“So a company will locate somewhere in central Connecticut— Middletown, perhaps, or Meriden— which will take that intellectual property and build a business,” he says.
Others aren’t as enthusiastic. Mark Guyer, deputy director of the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Md., says impressive work has been done in the state, but “I wouldn’t call Connecticut a hotbed” of genomics research. As far as Hartford emerging as a genomics equivalent of Silicon Valley, Guyer says he doubts that’s going to happen here or anywhere else.
Genomics, he says, “requires a strategic approach of lots of technologies that can be applied in lots of fields of research.” So it’s unlikely that genomics research will be concentrated to any specific geography, he says.
There are about 20,000 proteincoding genes in the human genome and about 3 billion base pairs (the rungs in the DNA double helix). Each genome is a sort of manual to its owner’s life, albeit a complicated one. The clearer picture that scientists get of the genome, the greater the medical benefits.
Specifically, it will advance personalized medicine, in which patients will have a better understanding of their health risks and doctors can precisely diagnose ailments and know what treatments will work best for them.
Because every person is genetically different, how they respond to the same treatment also differs.
In cancer, the diagnostic tools that doctors use now—considering a patient’s symptoms, location of a tumor, how its cells appear under a microscope—are blunt instruments compared to gene sequencing. Rather than treating the cell type of a tumor, drugs will be targeting the specific gene mutations in a patient.
That’s the work researchers at the Farmington facility will focus on.
“What we’re going to do, and this is going to be one of the major initiatives in Connecticut and the rest of Jackson Labs, is to create those predictive models so that we can take the road map of your genome,” says Jackson CEO Edison Liu.
To lure the biomedical research giant to Connecticut, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced last year— against the objections of some state officials—that the state will pay Jackson Laboratory $291 million over 10 years. That includes a $145 million loan for the lab’s construction, which will be forgiven if Jackson employs 300 people by 2020. Jackson officials say they will double that number by 2030.
The official groundbreaking for the 173,000-square-foot Jackson Lab is set for Jan. 17. Mike Hyde, Jackson vice president, says between 20 and 30 people have already been hired, and “people from all over the planet” have expressed interest in working there. As of November, 207 applications from Ph.D-level job seekers were submitted to Jackson.
“That’s a huge volume of applications for a start-up like this,” he says. “It’s evidence that this is big news in the biomedical world.”
The state’s first steps toward playing a major role in genomics probably began with Jonathan Rothberg. He founded CuraGen, one of the first genomics companies, while a graduate student at Yale in 1991. The Connecticut native later founded 454 Life Sciences in Branford and then Ion Torrent, based in Guilford, his hometown. The two small companies are responsible for mapping the Neanderthal genome and one of the first genome maps of a living person.
Since then, Connecticut has been home to a number of milestones in the field: In 2009, Yale’s Richard Lifton made the first medical diagnosis by genomic analysis, saving the life of a baby in Turkey.
UConn’s Brenton Graveley has received a $9.3 million grant as part of the massive international effort to better understand the human genome known as the Encyclopedia Of DNA Elements (ENCODE). With the grant, he will study the functions of the genome that turn genes “on” and “off” at certain times and what role this plays in the development of diseases. And this year, Yale’s Mark Gerstein played a big part in the ENCODE project, shedding light on the molecular interactions of the genome and how to track the mother and father’s genetic contributions in a genome.
Rothberg proudly notes that most of the development side of his business is done in Guilford. But to commercialize his work and distribute it internationally, Rothberg says, he had to sell Ion Torrent in 2010 to a California company, Life Technologies.
“I think it’s great what’s happening here,’’ he says, “but I think we have to put in a better mechanism for our best and brightest to stay in Connecticut and start up their own companies, as opposed to going to Boston, San Diego or San Francisco.”
Marc Lalande, director of UConn’s Stem Cell Institute, says Rothberg’s assertion that the state can’t keep its talent is accurate— for now.
“But given state support and investments by Jackson Labs, UConn and Yale, I think there will be a lot of career opportunities created here,” he says.
UConn has committed to hiring a few hundred new faculty members over the next few years, Lalande says, and up to 20 of them could be in the genomics field.
“You want to train people who are going to stay in Connecticut,” he says. “If we build this as planned, we will keep many of our best and brightest.”