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June 19, 2014

MDI lab gets $18M grant for biomedical research, workforce training

File Photo / Leslie Bowman
File Photo / Leslie Bowman
Kevin Strange, left, and Voot Yin, of Mount Desert Island Biologicial Labaratory, started the lab's first spinoff company in its 115-year history. Yin was part of the Maine IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence program.

Shortly after hearing it may benefit from a $3 million bond proposal signed by Gov. Paul LePage in late April and to be voted on this November, the MDI Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor said it has received an $18.4 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health.

The five year grant will be used to strengthen biomedical research and hands-on workforce training in Maine, according to MDIBL, which in a statement said the money assures that the Maine IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, known as INBRE, will continue. INBRE is a collaborative network of 13 Maine research institutions, universities and colleges led by the MDIBL.

Patricia Hand, the principal investigator on the INBRE grant, said the potential bond funding and the grant are synergistic in that the bond would fund a new research facility that in turn would be used by INBRE students and faculty.

"The bond would allow MDIBL to build a much-needed, 3,000-square-foot training lab here. We need that for the INBRE program," she told Mainebiz.

Hand, who is based at MDIBL, said the new grant was submitted last June and approved a few weeks ago to start on June 1. It is intended to enhance biomedical research and research training in Maine. Its major components are research training in Maine, helping young faculty be more competitive in applying for research funding, developing a skilled workforce through undergraduate research training, and strengthening research and training at all 13 Maine INBRE institutions.

The lab also received a $12.8 million National Institutes of Health grant last November for a sister program to move forward its regenerative medicine research program. Hand says the difference between the two programs is that last November's grant is for one specific lab at MDIBL, while the new grant is for work across all INBRE member institutions.

Other Maine INBRE members are The Jackson Laboratory, the University of Maine, the University of Maine Honors College, Southern Maine Community College, and the University of Maine at Farmington, Fort Kent, Machias and Presque Isle. There also are four private colleges: the College of the Atlantic, Colby, Bates and Bowdoin.

MDIBL said that since INBRE started in 2001, it has brought more than $93 million in federal funds into Maine, improved the state's research infrastructure and trained more than 2,000 Maine students in biomedical research techniques.

One recipient is Voot Yin, who was in the INBRE program in 2011 to learn how zebrafish regenerate their hearts and other tissues after injury. Yin is now assistant professor of regenerative biology at the lab. Along with MDIBL President Kevin Strange, he was named a Mainebiz "Nexter" in 2013, and together last year they launched the first spinoff company from MDIBL in its 115-year history called Novo Biosciences Inc.

Hand adds that Yin and eight other researchers who received INBRE funding to support their preliminary research data later were able to get a combined $25 million in independent grants for their research.

She added that INBRE has helped increase the number of science majors at the 13 member institutions. Colby College, for example, saw science majors increase to 535 from 408 from 2009 to 2013. Biology became the largest major at the college, she said, with 70% of biology majors being women. The members also have seen an increase in biomedical and research courses to the tune of 31 new courses and 46 modified ones, she said.

MDIBL's Strange added that the grant will help his organization build Maine's innovation economy. "More than half of these funds will be distributed among colleges and research institutions across the state to build the state's research infrastructure and help Maine's colleges and research institutions attract talented faculty," he said in a prepared statement.

Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, along with Congressman Mike Michaud and Gov. Paul LePage, issued statements saying how important the award is for the biomedical sector of Maine's economy.

Over the five-year grant period, 800 undergraduate and graduate students are expected to get hands-on biomedical research training through summer research fellowships, academic year short courses and research assistantships in Maine. The grant also will help support 14 science faculty members across the state so they can better compete for federal grants and bring students into their labs as research assistants.

MDIBL said northern and eastern Maine have faster Internet connections partly because of the INBRE program, which received $1.73 million in 2009 to create a high-speed fiber optic connection from Bangor to the University of Maine at Presque Isle and to complete a high-speed coastal loop from Portland to Ellsworth.

According to follow-up program studies, 90% of students who participated in Maine INBRE programs and graduated from college are pursuing careers or graduate education in health-related fields. MDIBL said INBRE grants have led to more than 100 new, high-paying jobs in the state.

The grant also is expected to support new initiatives such as expanded training for junior faculty, a new focus on bioinformatics (storing, organizing and analyzing biological data), establishing collaborations with Maine biotech companies and enhanced New England regional collaborations.

Read more

Scientists Kevin Strange and Voot Yin probe the mysteries of regenerative tissue

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