February 18, 2005

VUMC on team bidding for $1B research facility

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Jeffrey Balser, M.D., Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Research, right, chats with Tennessee House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, at Legislative Plaza.
photo by Dana Johnson

VUMC on team bidding for $1B research facility

Vanderbilt University is joining forces with the University of Tennessee and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital to win a major research facility for Oak Ridge National Laboratory that could add $1 billion to the state's economy, officials said.

The U.S. Department of Energy has announced plans to establish four “Genome to Life” facilities aimed at using microbes to solve environmental and health problems. The department is expected to request applications for the $250 million facilities this spring.

“We actually think the state of Tennessee is in a better position than any other state to capture this funding,” said Jeffrey R. Balser, M.D., Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Research at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, during testimony to the state Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday.

“If you look at the portfolio that we can present to compete for this thing, Oak Ridge and UT are arguably number one in the world in nanotechnology and computation, and I believe Vanderbilt and St. Jude together are number one in the world in terms of early-stage drug discovery,” Balser said. “So I don't think any state can put together a more competitive application for the Genomes to Life project than Tennessee.”

During a half-hour presentation, Balser discussed the “biomedical research opportunities for Tennessee” that result from the growing partnerships between Vanderbilt and other biomedical research institutions in the state.

His talk coincided with the annual “Day on the Hill” meet-and-greet session at the Legislative Plaza, which is designed to better acquaint members of the General Assembly with Vanderbilt's research, educational and economic contributions to Tennessee.

The goal of the Genomes to Life project is to understand how microbes might be used to address the problems of global warming, pollution and infectious disease.

“Certain microbes have the ability to take carbon dioxide from the air and sequester it in the ground,” explained Lee Riedinger, Ph.D., associate laboratory director for university partnerships at Oak Ridge. “We don't know how that works, but if we could figure out how those microbes grab the carbon and keep it in the ground, that would decrease global warming issues in the atmosphere.

“DOE is also interested in microbes that can help clean up the soil,” Riedinger continued. In dealing with radioactive waste, for example, “you might be able to use microbes that can break down some of the chemical bonds that make them such a problem in the environment.”

“At the same time,” added Balser, “microbes are very important to the biomedical research enterprise because they cause infection, and infection is the leading cause of death worldwide.”

Vanderbilt officials estimated that the initial DOE grant eventually would be multiplied by a factor of four, resulting in a $1 billion economic impact in home and other purchases by the scientists required to run the facility, for example, and other support services.

Genomes to Life is just one example of the growing biomedical research enterprise involving Vanderbilt and its partners in Tennessee.

Last year Vanderbilt joined six other “core” universities to become part of the management team at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. With Oak Ridge, Vanderbilt will apply for more than $30 million in grants during the next four months.

One of the pending proposals would create a Center for Nanomedicine to “build better antibodies to fight early childhood infections, the leading cause of death in children across the world,” Balser said.

The center is being developed by James E. Crowe, Jr., M.D., professor of Pediatrics, and Leonard C. Feldman, Ph.D., Stevenson Professor of Physics, both at Vanderbilt, and by Peter T. Cummings, Ph.D., who has a joint appointment in Engineering at Vanderbilt and Oak Ridge.

With St. Jude, Vanderbilt is developing a joint program aimed at improving the treatment of early-stage cancers.

Balser noted that Vanderbilt University Medical Center has the nation's fastest growing rate of increase in grants funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), with a third of the grants related to cancer.

“The success of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center has been a big driver of our rapid growth and our ability to stay at the top of the country in terms of our rate of growth,” he said.