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Grant aids life sciences at UMass

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The expansion of the UMass life sciences program is called for as part of a wider $1 billion state life sciences initiative established in 2008. Life sciences involve the study of living organisms, and have expanded beyond the core study of biology to encompass a range of specializations such as biotechnology, environmental science and pharmacology.

Michael Malone, UMass vice chancellor of research and engagement, said in an interview Wednesday that the planning grant will help “direct” that expansion, identifying infrastructure needs to grow the program along with potential research partners.

“It is a pretty extensive investigation that will make sure that we’re on the right track,” Malone said.

The grant will pay Co-Bio Consulting, an Acton firm, to assist the university with that planning, he said. He noted that the company will hold a series of workshops with research partners about areas where university and business can work together. The information gathered will inform the university of where and how it should invest the wider $95 million, he said.

“We want to understand where they’re positioned and what their aspirations are,” Malone said. “At the same time, we want to make them aware of our academic program.”

UMass Amherst conducted $58 million in life science research in fiscal year 2011, awarded 941 life sciences degrees and employs 280 faculty working in the field, Malone said.

The planned expansion of the university’s life science program is part of an initiative passed by the Legislature in 2008. The $1 billion effort earmarks $95 million for capital funding to expand UMass’s life sciences program.

But before UMass receives the money, the university must present a plan to the Massachusetts Life Sciences Board for approval, Malone said.

The university will likely finish the planning phase in the next six months while the expansion of the life science program is a “few plus years away,” Malone said.

Ultimately, the hope of the program is to boost research that can be commercialized and used for real-world applications, Malone said. He cited Therapeutic Systems, a Chicopee company, as an example of the type of research the university is hoping to promote.

Brian Mullen, the company’s founder, invented a pressure vest during his research as a doctoral student at the university. When worn the vest helps calm individuals with anxiety disorders or autism. Mullen founded Therapeutic Systems after finishing his degree at UMass and is manufacturing vests today in Chicopee, Malone said.

News of the planning grant’s award was welcomed by UMass President Robert L. Caret.

“UMass Amherst is the flagship campus of the UMass system and already a major producer of talent and innovation for the Pioneer Valley and the commonwealth,’’ Caret said in a statement announcing the planning grant. “We’re pleased to see both the Patrick-Murray administration and the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center’s support for this strategic effort to help further develop and strengthen the campus’s role in the life sciences — especially in terms of university-industry partnerships and development of the bio-economy.”

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