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Cutting-edge science: UMass, state formally launch $150M life sciences institute at flagship

  • Nathan Kuhlmann, 22, a University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate student, sits outside of the school’s Institute for Applied Life Sciences Friday on the university’s flagship campus in Amherst. Kuhlmann is studying molecular biology. Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY

  • A group including Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst and Edward W. Collins Jr., a member of the UMass Board of Trustees, both at center, participate in a ribbon cutting Oct. 21 during a day-long launch event for the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. —Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY

  • Keynote speaker Dr. Harvey Lodish speaks Oct. 21 during a day-long launch event Oct. 21 for the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Lodish is a Professor of Biology and founding member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, founder of Genzyme and Millennium Pharmaceuticals and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. —Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY

  • Blaise Arden, 24, left, and Tyler Marcinko, 31, both University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate students studying chemistry, use a computer and a mass spectrometer to watch the dynamics of amyloid-forming proteins and how they assemble into toxic structures Oct. 21 during a day-long launch event for the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass. —Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY

  • Bay Serrano, a University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate student, listens to a speech during a day-long launch event Oct. 21 for the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass. Serrano is a chemistry student. —Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY

  • Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst speaks during a day-long launch event Oct. 21 for the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at University of Massachusetts Amherst. —Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY

  • Blaise Arden, 24, left, and Tyler Marcinko, 31, both University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate students studying chemistry, use a computer and a mass spectrometer to watch the dynamics of amyloid-forming proteins and how they assemble into toxic structures Friday during a daylong launch event for the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass. Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY

  • An exterior view of the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at University of Massachusetts Amherst is shown Oct. 21. —Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY

  • Soha Rostaminia, 23, a University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate student, demonstrates the use of a pair of iShadow computational eyeglasses during a day-long launch event Friday for the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass. Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY

  • A lab inside the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at University of Massachusetts Amherst is shown Oct. 21. —Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY

  • Tyler Marcinko, 31, left, Blaise Arden, 24, and Joe Tilitsky, 25, all University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate students studying chemistry, use a computer and a mass spectrometer to watch the dynamics of amyloid-forming proteins and how they assemble into toxic structures Oct. 21 during a day-long launch event for the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass. —Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY

  • Addison Mayberry, 27, a University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate student, demonstrates the use of a pair of iShadow computational eyeglasses during a day-long launch event Oct. 21 for the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass. Mayberry, who is studying computer science, said the glasses track eye movements and eye closure patterns in order to detect fatigue, drowsiness and gaze direction. —Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY

  • Nathan Kuhlmann, 22, a University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate student, sits outside of the school's Institute for Applied Life Sciences Oct. 21 in Amherst. Kuhlmann is studying molecular biology. —Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY



Staff Writer
Friday, October 21, 2016

AMHERST — Cutting-edge research that scientists believe could help keep people healthy and create a significant economic boost for the region is taking place inside the labs of a new $150 million life sciences institute that state and university officials formally opened Friday at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Though the Institute for Applied Life Sciences “officially” opened Friday with a ribbon-cutting, dozens of research projects have been taking place inside the 275,000-square-foot building on the flagship campus for some time. State and campus leaders say the research is already helping drive the regional economy and promote public health.

Nick Mucci is one of those researchers. The senior biology major at UMass, Mucci is studying how some types of bacteria evolve and possibly jeopardize cardiovascular health.

“If we can stop them at the microscopic levels, we’re hopeful we can make advancements in personalized medicine” to reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes, Mucci said.

Access to high-powered laboratory computers gives Mucci the ability to synthesize data about these so-called bacterial microcompartments, which are also known as BMC’s.

“We don’t usually have facilities that process genomic information so quickly,” Mucci said.

Peter Reinhart, director of the institute, acknowleded the good work occurring at the institute at a daylong ceremonial opening of the building on Friday.

“How do we translate it into something that matters?” he asked.

Institute parts

The institute is divided into three parts: the Center for Bioactive Delivery, which is focused on a variety of ways of applying new drugs, such as developing synthetic molecules that can fight infection; the Models to Medicine Center, where basic protein research will develop new therapeutic targets; and the Center for Personalized Health Monitoring.

What is occurring in the high-tech laboratories is not only training the next generation of scientists, but also creating medical devices with intelligent sensor systems for personalized health care, and developing strategies for delivering drugs and therapies that can be marketed.

Reinhart said the institute is becoming a partner of choice with industry, foundations and government agencies, including Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, with which UMass has created the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute in Springfield to study cancer, diabetes and other human diseases.

Prominent research

The Institute for Applied Life Sciences is a six-story building with space for 16 companies to work alongside more than 150 faculty from 28 departments in what Reinhart said are being called “co-laboratories.”

UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said the institute will foster entrepreneurship and innovation, and further the mission of bettering the state through support of both economic and personal well being.

During his keynote address, Harvey Lodish, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founder of Genzyme and Millennium Pharmaceuticals, said there is true potential for both innovation and profit at the institute.

“One thing I’m glad to see here is a training faculty and giving them freedom to start companies,” Lodish said.

Researchers, Lodish said, are on the cusp of “a whole brave new world of therapies with enormous promise but very high technical medical challenges” and that personalized medicine will be used to treat rare diseases, as there is improved understanding of what is happening at the molecular level.

“Cutting edge science to improve the human condition” is how Benjamin Bradford describes the endeavor.

He is the director of regional development strategy for the Massachusetts Life Science Center, a quasi-public agency of the state that implements a $1-billion state initiative signed into law in June of 2008.

The center’s mission is to create jobs in the life sciences — biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, diagnostics and bioinformatics — and support vital scientific research that will improve the human condition.

This work includes making financial investments such as the institute at UMass. The Waltham-based agency partially funded the institute at UMass with $95 million in 2013.

Mobile health lab

Inside the institute’s mHealth Lab, or mobile health lab, data pours into computers from various wearable devices, including what look like eyeglasses and wristwatches, measuring the movement of a person’s eyes and the gestures of a person’s hands.

Deepak Ganesan, professor of computer science who runs the lab with his colleague Prashant Shenay, said the computative eyeglasses can capture information about the eye, and will then analyze this information for a person’s health condition, determining, for instance, if someone is possibly fatigued after a long drive, or under the influence of drugs.

Similarly, the wearable monitors, similar to Fitbits, can tell a lot about a person’s physical condition.

Ganesas said he is planning a study in which these wrist bands will be given out to 500 to 1,000 students and real-time health data will be observed, allowing intervention if medical issues are diagnosed.

Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, D-Amherst, who helped pass the life sciences legislation, said he appreciates the economic development spinoffs and research employment opportunities.

“It’s not charity that’s been given us, it’s an opportunity that’s been given us, it’s an opportunity that we will make the best of here,” Rosenberg said.

That opportunity is already paying off at the institute. More than 30 projects involving around 24 companies are engaging with the researchers, thinkers and creators at UMass, and more than $20 million in life sciences-related sponsored research awards have been secured.

Rosenberg said this is helping to put the Pioneer Valley on the map in a state already known for its work in life sciences.

“We are the number one research state in the United States for life sciences,” Rosenberg said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com