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Genetics researchers plan $1.1B Conn. expansion

Fri, 09/30/2011 - 12:13pm
STEPHANIE REITZ - Associated Press - Associated Press

A genetics research institute whose plans fell through to expand in Florida has committed to a $1.1 billion project in central Connecticut in a partnership with two universities and the state government.

Executives from The Jackson Laboratory, of Bar Harbor, Maine, joined Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and other Connecticut officials to unveil the plan Friday at the state Capitol, where some financial aspects will be presented to lawmakers for a vote next month.

The project, estimated to create more than 660 permanent jobs at the center, involves building 250,000 square feet of new laboratory space at the University of Connecticut Health Center campus in Farmington.

Jackson, a nonprofit independent organization founded in 1929, will keep its headquarters in Maine and continue to run another location in Sacramento, Calif., including its work breeding thousands of varieties of mice used by other research labs.

The major focus at its Connecticut site will be the growing field of personalized medicine. That involves determining a person's genetic makeup to help tailor care and determine the most effective treatments for cancer and other illnesses.

Jackson's researchers will team with the medical schools and hospitals at UConn and Yale University in that research and other work. Officials say they also see possibilities for research partnerships with other hospitals, universities and entities.

Connecticut officials aggressively courted Jackson after learning in June that its Florida plans had failed, hoping it would be lured by the newly approved $854 million Bioscience Connecticut initiative.

That project includes expanding bioscience research and training facilities at UConn's Health Center campus, renovating and expanding the John Dempsey Hospital and increasing student enrollment at UConn's medical and dental schools.

Edison Liu, Jackson's incoming president and chief executive officer, said they jumped at the chance to plant roots in Connecticut.

The Bioscience Connecticut project was a top draw, along with its proximity to other major metropolitan areas and its research work at UConn, Yale and in private industry, Jackson officials said.

"The critical mass is here. The quality of science is here. The concentration and the will to have this happen is here," Liu said.

Officials say Jackson's expansion will create 661 new research jobs, nearly 850 construction jobs and almost 6,900 long-term direct and indirect jobs over the next 20 years.

"This is how we begin to reinvent Connecticut," Malloy said. "By investing in a smart, strategic property like Bioscience Connecticut, the state has sent a loud and clear message around the world to companies and research institutions like Jackson Laboratory that we are ready, willing and able to partner in this upcoming industry."

Jackson is providing $809 million of the $1.1 billion price tag, while the state would provide a $192 million loan and $99 million for its share of research partnership projects with the lab.

The state portion would require General Assembly approval, and Malloy said Friday he expects the proposal to be the cornerstone of lawmakers' upcoming special session on job creation.

Charles Hewett, Jackson's executive vice president, said they are "certainly keeping our hopes at an appropriate level until we get through that process."

State Rep. Lawrence Cafero, a Norwalk Republican and his chamber's minority leader, said he and state Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney were briefed on the project Wednesday.

Cafero said the excitement about the project is infectious, but that he and other Republicans look forward to more details as lawmakers consider whether to approve the state's $291 million share.

"There's a lot of questions that need to be asked, there's a lot of answers that need to be given, but this is about a process of getting to 'yes,'" Cafero said.

If all remains on schedule, the lab would open in 2014, Jackson officials said. However, some of its researchers and leaders would move here right away to get things started if Connecticut lawmakers approve the project.

Jackson's plans to expand in Florida fell apart earlier this year amid that state's tight finances and concerns over whether the state and local governments — first in Collier County and later in Sarasota County — would provide some funding.

Hewett said Friday that after the lengthy Florida discussions ended, they were ready to exhale and step back from expansion plans, until Connecticut officials made their unexpected pitch.

"Many times things work out for the best, and I can't tell you how delighted we are to be here in Connecticut," Hewitt said Friday at the Capitol. "We believe in a decade's time or perhaps less ... that we can make Connecticut a true powerhouse, a true destination for personalized medicine."

The concept of personalized medicine relies heavily on genetic research to give physicians an insight into each patient's individual needs. Researchers envision a day when treatments for cancer and other illnesses can be tailored specifically to a person's genetics.

Jackson Laboratory researchers also are working on using it for prevention, including their recent success in designing a technique that detects early stages of glaucoma so they can block it before it causes eye damage. That work, done in mice, might eventually be extended to humans, depending on the researchers' success.

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