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February 6, 2017 Focus: Bioscience

CT's bioscience push lands top worldwide talent

PHOTO | Contributed Pediatric-endocrinologist and physician-scientist Dr. Emily L. Germain-Lee came to Connecticut from the John Hopkins School of Medicine as a result of the state's bioscience focus.
Yu-Hui Rogers, site director, The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine
Dr. Bruce Liang, dean, UConn School of Medicine
Dr. Ching C. Lau, cancer researcher, UConn School of Medicine

The Hartford region's roster of bioscience talent continues to expand with recruitment of top clinicians and researchers, and the hiring spigot shows no signs of shutting off as word spreads about the area's facilities, talent and government support.

Recent hires involving UConn Health, Connecticut Children's Medical Center and The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine (JAX) have included what the organizations said are a world-renowned pediatric endocrinologist, the world's top researcher of rare genetic liver disease, a leading pediatric cancer researcher and a genomics pioneer.

The growing amount of bioscience research in the region, particularly in Farmington and Hartford, presents an attractive collaborative environment for top doctors and scientists, industry experts say.

“I was just so taken by the place in many ways: the clinical excellence, the dedication of the physicians, the collaboration that Connecticut Children's was having with UConn Health and JAX, the huge amount of resources that the state was putting in, which was really phenomenal,” said Dr. Emily L. Germain-Lee, who was among recent top hires.

UConn Health and Connecticut Children's announced in July that they landed pediatric endocrinologist Germain-Lee from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. She joined Connecticut Children's in October as chief of the division of pediatric endocrinology and UConn Health as a professor in the department of pediatrics. Her clinical care is at Connecticut Children's and her research laboratory at UConn Health.

The announcement on her hire said Germain-Lee redefined the field of pediatric-endocrinology, attracting patients and families from all over the world seeking her services. She cares for people with rare bone disorders and has done extensive research on genetic and metabolic bone disease with a goal of developing new therapies for people with the disorders.

Germain-Lee, who has family connections to New England and owned a second home in Hartford, wasn't looking to relocate when a colleague informed her of the Connecticut Children's position, but after visiting, she said she was immediately impressed by the people and facilities. It's an emerging area that can compete with any bioscience region in the country, she said.

“What it comes down to is having a group of people who are highly motivated, who want to improve the lives of others, excited about research, who all come together and have the resources to do it,” she said. “I have no doubt that this place is top-notch quality.”

It's the combination of facilities and their collaboration that's helping attract talent, with JAX the latest catalyst in the package, said Bruce Liang, dean of the UConn School of Medicine and a clinical cardiologist and researcher at UConn Health.

That package helped draw another recent hire, Dr. Ching C. Lau, a leading pediatric hematology oncologist from Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, Liang said. Lau is medical director of hematology-oncology at Connecticut Children's, a JAX professor specializing in pediatric brain and bone tumor research, and head of the division of pediatric hematology-oncology in the department of pediatrics at UConn School of Medicine.

Dr. David A. Weinstein, the researcher of rare genetic liver disease, is a co-collaboration of Connecticut Children's and UConn Health. Weinstein has been at the University of Florida and director of its world-renowned Glycogen Storage Disease (GSD) program, which he's moving to the UConn School of Medicine and Connecticut Children's Medical Center. His move here was helped by financial support of patients and their families and his GSD program is the largest clinical and research program of its kind in the world.

Pediatric and adult patients living with the rare, genetic liver disease travel from across the globe for his team's care.

UConn Health also just signed a genetics professor, doctor and National Academy of Sciences member in a co-recruitment with JAX, Liang said, adding that more talent continues to be sought.

“I think it's going to be transformative,” Liang said of the impact on the region, calling the recruitment a team effort and crediting the state's investment in bioscience for creating such high-level interest.

The state legislature, led by Gov. Dannel P Malloy, committed $864 million to the industry in 2011 and $291 million in forgivable loans and grants to build JAX's Farmington facility.

Yu-Hui Rogers, site director for The Jackson Laboratory and JAX's second hire in Farmington in 2012, said the state's long-term commitment to bioscience and JAX's commitment to being a world-class research organization pursuing personalized genomic medicine are big draws. Also, JAX has high expectations for the people it seeks, which, in turn, attracts like-minded talent, she said.

“We are really quite picky about who we actually invite to the party,” Rogers said. “So we really are targeting some of the most top-notch scientists and investigators around the world.”

JAX has about 270 people in Farmington, including roughly 100 senior scientists with MD or Ph.D. degrees and 25 technical faculty, including three joint faculty with UConn Health, a number that will grow, she said.

Hiring is running ahead of JAX's schedule to add 300 people within 10 years. It opened its building in fall 2014 and plans a second building, for which no dates have been announced.

In the meantime, the region continues building its bioscience reputation.

One opportunity includes microbiome research, for which JAX has attracted top researchers as it starts a microbiome initiative.

JAX recently hired Mark Adams, whom Rogers called a pioneer in areas of genomics sequencing and microbial genomics, as director of microbial genomic services to enhance JAX's large-scale microbiome initiatives. 

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