October 17, 2016

Jackson Lab pulls in lots of money, but is there ever enough funding for life-saving research?

Photos / Courtesy Jackson Laboratory
Photos / Courtesy Jackson Laboratory
Photo / Courtesy Jackson Laboratory
Charles Hewett: Executive vice president Role: Since 2004 he has overseen the launch of research products and services and the modernization of mouse production facilities.
Photo / Courtesy Jackson Laboratory
Jennifer Trowbridge: Assistant professor Research: Studies adult acute myeloid leukemia and how and why certain cells mutate to cancer.
Photo / Courtesy Jackson Laboratory
Stephen Murray: Senior research scientist Research: With collaborators, is working on the Knockout Mouse Production and Phenotyping Project to determine the function of every mammalian gene.
Photo / Courtesy Jackson Laboratory
Gareth Howell Associate professor Research: Studies Alzheimer's disease in new mouse models that are more similar to human disease.
Photo / Courtesy Jackson Laboratory
Greg Carter Associate professor Research: Works with Gareth Howell on Alzheimer's research and develops analytical tools.
Photo / Courtesy Jackson Laboratory
Elissa Chesler Associate professor Research: Researches the genetics underlying behavior and identifies the biological basis for behaviorial traits, especially addictions.
Map / Courtesy Jackson Laboratory
Jackson Laboratory has nearly doubled the number of buildings on its Bar Harbor campus. Buildings added since 2002 are in dark blue.
Photo / Tiffany Laufer, Jackson Laboratory
Nadia Rosenthal, scientific director for mammalian genetics at The Jackson Laboratory, at the construction site of the $21 million Center for Biometric Analysis, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2017.

Jackson Lab Funding, Q1–Q3 2016

$1,000,000 (1/12/16) Use: Gift to support cancer and immunology research Funding source: Dennis Paustenbach

$1,500,000 (2/24/16) Use: Philanthropic gift to create Janeway Distinguished Chair for ongoing research Funding source: Weslie Janeway

$1,281,975 (5/12/16) Use: Five years for teacher professional development to enhance high school genetics instruction Funding source: Science Education Partnership Award, National Institutes of Health

$4,878,587 (4/20/16) Use: Continuation grant for Mouse Genome Database Funding source: National Human Genome Research Institute

$3,436,466 (5/18/16) Use: Four-year grant to develop data resources, mouse models for genetic disorders Funding source: National Institutes of Health

$3,281,515 (6/2/16) Use: Five-year grant for better ways to diagnose, treat chronic fatigue syndrome Funding source: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

$872,924 (6/7/16) Use: Five-year grant to train PhDs, postdocs in developmental genetics Funding source: Eunice Kennedy Shriver Institute for Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health

$8,410,000 (6/8/16) Use: Enhance cancer diagnostics and treatment in Maine Funding source: Harold Alfond Foundation

$3,381,769 (6/20/16) Use: Five-year grant to find genetic variants that raise addiction susceptibility Funding source: National Institute on Drug Abuse

$248,000 (6/23/16) Use: Four-year gift to support new STEM education Funding source: Petit Family Foundation

$3,400,000 (6/29/16) Use: Five-year grant to boost vaccine effectiveness Funding source: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

$10,500,000 (6/30/16) Use: Five-year grant for JAX's Gene Expression Database Funding source: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development

$28,305,235 (8/4/16) Use: Five-year grant for Knockout Mouse Production and Phenotyping Project Funding source: National Institutes of Health

$11,714,623 (8/8/16) Use: Five-year grant for a new Center for Systems Neurogenetics of Addiction Funding source: National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health

$1,219,140 (8/17/16) Use: Four-year grant to develop mouse models for inherited peripheral neuropathies and neurodegenerative diseases including Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease Funding source: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

$225,000 (8/24/16) Use: Support a postdoctoral fellow for three years Funding source: Maximilian E. & Marion O. Hoffman Foundation Inc.

$2,348,313 (9/15/16) Use: Four-year grant for better prevention, treatments for pneumonia Funding source: National Institute on Aging

$15,000,000 (9/22/16) Use: Five-year grant for new Alzheimer's Disease Precision Models Center at JAX ($15 million) and Indiana University School of Medicine ($10 million) Funding source: National Institute of Aging (shared)

$1,793,750 (9/26/16) Use: Five-year grant for tools to analyze how multiple genes interact in complex diseases Funding source: National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Source: Jackson Laboratory

When it comes to breeding and studying mice to learn more about human disease, The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor sets the bar high in both science and business. The lab says its economic impact in Maine is substantial: in 2015 it employed 1,441 people, generated $202 million in operating revenue, shipped 3 million research mice worldwide, paid more than $105 million in salary and benefits and spent about $20 million on non-operating expenses, much of which went to the lab's 683 Maine vendors based in 106 communities across the state.

Breeding research mice and providing research services accounts for almost two-thirds of its global annual operating revenue, which was $300 million last year and is expected to hit $330 million in 2016, according to Charles Hewett, executive vice president of the lab.

"The increase is primarily from the sale of mice and research services," Hewett says, explaining that an expected spike in federal research grant funding to about $80 million this year, up from $75.5 million last year, builds on the success of mice sales and services. That research funding amount dwarfs the totals pulled in by other private laboratories in the state.

Despite the $80 million expected this year — JAX already has 19 grants awarded through the first three quarters of this year — there's still a dire need for more funding. Just ask any researcher.

"I spend more than 50% of my time writing grants," notes Jennifer Trowbridge, assistant professor, who is studying adult acute myeloid leukemia, a bone marrow cancer that will affect some 20,000 Americans this year, according to the American Cancer Society. Her lab is studying how certain cells mutate or change to become cancerous, under what conditions and what methods might be developed to prevent the damaging changes.

Trowbridge will become one of the more recent recipients of grant money via The V Foundation for Cancer Research on Oct. 15, with $200,000 over two years to use novel mouse models that replicate certain AML conditions in mice to gain better insight into human outcomes. Still, she says getting additional money is always on her mind. The current grant will cover tests in mice. The next step is to test what's discovered in mice in human cells to make sure the information is correct for use in humans.

While Trowbridge says she has a 70% success rate so far in getting grants, she notes the time spent writing grants is time not spent in the lab or training the young people who work with her.

"We want everyone to know the only way in which we'll get better at helping people as they age or in treating diseases is by doing science," she says. "It's critical that scientific research remains funded. That's a challenge for us now."

Many federal science budgets have been virtually flat over the past 10 years. An exception is the National Institutes of Health, whose budget has been nudging up around 5%, says Hewett, and from which JAX gets most of its federal funding.

Trowbridge adds that as scientific technology advances, it's becoming harder to convince students to get into STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — as a career path, because every year it gets more difficult for scientists to win funding, and it gets more difficult for PhDs to get jobs in their field.

Doing science takes money

Hewett says writing grants is an important skill for researchers, and helps them hone their grant applications. "We have a consistent success rate at JAX that is close to 50%, or about double the national average," he says. He says each grant is reviewed internally before it is submitted, which is essential to its success.

"The process of writing a grant forces you to think how you'll approach the problem," he adds. "It's fundamental to conceptualizing the work they do. You want to put in a highly credible grant to score in the top 8% to 10%." JAX teaches its postdocs how to write grants.

Grant money doesn't cover all the funds needed for a research project. "For every $1 of a grant, we add 50 cents to get the work done, which includes overhead such as for animal caretakers. Research is a great loss-leader," Hewett says.

Still, technological advances are making research less costly and more efficient. Take the research JAX scientists are doing on Alzheimer's disease, which affects 5.2 million Americans and 40,000 Mainers, according to the Alzheimer's Association. In September, JAX got a $15 million grant over five years from the National Institute of Aging and its partner, the Indiana University School of Medicine, got another $10 million, to create new mouse models that more precisely relate to the pathways and effects of Alzheimer's disease in humans.

Their research will build on work by senior research scientist Stephen Murray, who in August was awarded a $28.3 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health for the second stage of a project to research mouse genetic functions and their relations to humans. While the first stage of his grant was for $33 million and ended this year, the new grant is for less. That is because he is using a new genetic editing technology called CRISPR/Cas9, which uses a bacterium to precisely cut genes to create new strains of mice that might better approximate disease in humans. The cost to create each new mouse is around $10,000, which is one-tenth to one-third of the money required with conventional techniques.

"CRISPR also cuts the time to make a new mouse from about one year to a few weeks or a few months now," says Gareth Howell, associate professor at JAX and one of the NIA grant recipients, along with colleagues Greg Carter, associate professor, and Mike Sasner, associate director. "We aim to better understand how genetics correlates with outcomes in Alzheimer's. Our center will identify the most likely [genetic] variants."

He says that the ultimate goal is to generate new mouse models to distribute to the scientific community for preclinical testing. That may eventually translate into earlier diagnosis of the disease and potentially the development of new drugs to slow its progression.

But again, like Trowbridge, Howell emphasizes that doing science takes money, and even with his lab's substantial funding, it needs more to move the science forward so it can be applied to humans. "We can make more mouse mutations with CRISPR for less, but we still need more funding," says Howell.

Still, JAX is pulling in handsome amounts of money for new research, including an $11.7 million grant over five years from the National Institute of Drug Abuse to create a new Center for Systems Neurogenetics of Addiction.

"We'll look at a lot of traits together," says Elissa Chesler, associate professor in the lab. "We'll look at the mice populations we've developed and what genes influence impulsivity, drug seeking and sensation seeking." She says these traits must be studied to see how they are related, and how a biological predisposition to take risks in life, including in sports or new business opportunities, might be related to those people leaning toward trying a new drug.

"We're trying to understand what's driving a particular person to take drugs," she says. It's a topic of intense interest in Maine, which like many states is struggling with a high rate of opioid addiction.

Growth and collaboration

Jackson Lab is a giant among the three science laboratories and schools in Bar Harbor, the other two being MDI Biological Laboratory and College of the Atlantic.

Jackson Lab has doubled the number of buildings on its main campus on Mount Desert Island since 2002, and one more is in progress there and another one in nearby Ellsworth. The $21 million Center for Biometric Analysis, known on campus as the "mouse hospital," is set for completion at the end of 2017 and used a $10 million state bond.

Hewett says the first phase of the Ellsworth facility in a converted Lowe's store should be ready for the mice to move in on Jan. 2, 2018. The $75 million to $90 million for that phase came out of the lab's capital budget. He says the lab is hoping for phase 2 support from a $50 million bond issue vote in June 2017 to add 52,000 mouse boxes, up from the 16,000 boxes in the first phase. Those two phases will be about 200,000 square feet. A third phase would add 40,000 to 50,000 square feet and bring the total number of mouse houses to 100,000.

Hewett expects to hire about 320 people for the first two phases, and he's unsure of the numbers for phase 3.

He says the new mouse breeding area will have cleaner standards than a hospital with air flow to keep the mice safe. It will be more advanced than the current mouse breeding facility in California, which will continue to run once the Ellsworth facility is ready.

Closer to home, Nadia Rosenthal, scientific director of JAX for mammalian genetics, says she'd like to see more collaboration among the three institutions in Bar Harbor.

"I'm optimistic and taking a forward-looking approach to an amalgamation of the three organizations," she says. "It will increase and inform our capacity to recruit."

Read more

Jackson Lab expanding into China with university collaboration

JAX lab lands $2.3M grant for elderly pneumonia research

Two Bar Harbor labs get separate NIH grants topping $1.67M to study nerve damage

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