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Genome research here is perfect fit

You might not think of the Buffalo Niagara region as a hotbed of genetic medical research, but Marnie LaVigne thinks the pieces already are in place here.

It’s just a question of putting them all together.

That’s why LaVigne, the University at Buffalo’s associate vice president of economic development, is so excited about Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plans to invest $50 million in genomic medical research here, building on UB’s supercomputing capacity, the modest-but-growing life sciences industry here and the region’s large database of electronic medical records.

“We’ve got phenomenal genomics capability,” LaVigne said.

“The high-performance computing isn’t in other places, as it is here,” she said. “The access to patient data is excellent here,” with medical data from more than 1 million medical records available for researchers to analyze as they seek out new cures and treatments.

“It’s not just data storage. It’s analytics,” she said.

And that’s the big selling point of UB’s involvement in the $105 million project that will upgrade the computing facilities and forge a partnership with the New York Genome Center, a consortium of 16 institutions in New York that are using genetic information to try to develop new medical tests and treatments.

It’s all part of a quest for a holy grail that’s sometimes called personalized medicine. By studying a patient’s genes, researchers look for genetic clues that show how susceptible that person is to certain diseases or conditions. Essentially, the makeup of a patient’s DNA and other genetic coding can help determine what diseases they are more likely to contract and how they can be treated most effectively.

“You can test it here. You can expand it here. You can co-locate here,” LaVigne said. “Groups outside of Buffalo are going to want to access what we have,” even international firms.

If that sounds familiar, it should. It’s the same type of mantra that the Cuomo administration has been following for most of its high-profile economic development initiatives here.

In fact, Albany’s fingerprints are all over the Buffalo Niagara region’s push to revive its economy – and not just because of the river of state money flowing our way.

The linchpin of many of the state’s economic development initiatives – from medical genomics to the RiverBend clean energy hub and a proposed innovation center for local manufacturers – is the blueprint that the Capitol District used over the past 30 years to build its bustling nanoscience industry.

The recipe is pretty simple: Use state money to create a complex with cutting-edge equipment and resources that companies in targeted high-growth industries will covet because they’re not available elsewhere and cost too much to create on their own.

It’s the model that helped turn Albany into a center for the nanoscience industry since the state made the first of its $1 billion in investments in the sector during the mid-1980s. And Cuomo is betting the bulk of the money his administration has committed through its Buffalo Billion program that it can work again in the Buffalo Niagara region.

“It’s all based on the Albany model and the extraordinary success that has seen,” said Sam Hoyt, the regional president of Empire State Development in Buffalo. “The Albany model created the mold and the strategy that we can follow, but we can do it in an accelerated manner because they’ve already done it and worked out the kinks.”

That model is behind the clean energy and high-tech hub that the state plans to open on the old Republic Steel site in South Buffalo. It’s the model behind the center the state plans to create to help local manufacturers develop new products and technology, using state-owned equipment that they couldn’t afford themselves.

“Here, the research institutions come together and do something collaboratively that they cannot do individually,” said Kenneth Adams, Empire State Development’s president and chief executive officer.

“It’s pulling together university research into one place where you have shared resources and facilities,” he said. “You need huge data systems, and it’s very power-intensive.”

Howard Zemsky, the Buffalo developer who has been the point man for many of the Cuomo administration’s initiatives, said a common thread running through all of those efforts is that all focus on next-generation industries with rapid growth potential. And there’s no question that medical genomics is a red-hot field today.

Universities and prominent hospitals across the country have set up research centers in recent years. The University of Rochester has a genomics research center, as does Penn State University. The Cleveland Clinic has a center for genomic medicine, as does the Mayo Clinic.

The New York Genome Center was founded three years ago among 11 New York City research institutions, from Columbia University to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to New York University.

And the field is attracting money by the tens of millions. Sanford Health, which runs hospitals in North and South Dakota, announced Tuesday that it is getting $125 million from its namesake sponsor, T. Denny Sanford, to find ways to link a patient’s genetic information with their primary health care.

The other common thread running between the Cuomo-backed projects is that they attempt to build on what officials believe are segments of the local economy where Western New York has a leg up on other parts of the nation, Zemsky said.

The medical genomics project builds on the strength of UB’s supercomputing abilities and the availability of cheap electricity to power that equipment. The manufacturing innovation center plays off the region’s industrial heritage and the skills of the local workforce. Other initiatives are targeting workforce training, enhancing the region’s tourism industry and making the region a more attractive place for entrepreneurs trying to turn research at local colleges and universities into marketable products.

“It’s not an accident,” Adams said.

“You really have to build on a firm foundation, and Buffalo has that foundation, certainly in health care and life sciences,” he said. “It’s risky if you don’t have the inherent assets. It’s risky if you try to plant a flag in quicksand.”


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