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July 8, 2013

Jackson Laboratory woos top scientists to Farmington

Photo | Pablo Robles Frank McKeon is one of several top researchers recently hired by Jackson Laboratory, which is building a 189,000 square-foot research facility in Farmington. Jackson Lab, which will focus its research on genomic medicine, has been aggressively recruiting scientists from around the world.
Photo | Pablo Robles Frank McKeon sees Jackson Lab’s commitment to research as a major selling point in recruiting top scientists to Connecticut.
Charles Lee, chief scientific director, Jackson Laboratory

For Frank McKeon, newly hired as a principal investigator for the Jackson Laboratory, we're living in a fascinating and hopeful time in medical research — a time when genomic information, big data and other technology can answer maddeningly elusive questions about diseases that cut so many lives short.

But it's also a time when research budgets, such as those at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), are getting slashed. Sequestration, for example, cut the NIH's budget by $1.71 billion, or some 700 research grants.

"Right as all these technologies have emerged, the National Institutes of Health is hamstrung to do anything about it," McKeon said, calling the timing tragic.

That, he added, is part of what makes Farmington's Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine so exciting to researchers. While other research sources are stagnating, Connecticut has moved in the opposite direction, betting its $291 million investment that a new center will be an economic boost to the state.

That's good news for Jackson's recruitment efforts, the lab's officials say. Although the center's building in Farmington is still just a steel skeleton, high-level scientists have snapped up new positions at the lab, and applications for research positions at the new facility have soared.

"We're getting huge numbers of applications from scientists with virtually no advertising," said Mike Hyde, Jackson Lab's vice president for external affairs and strategic partnerships. The center has already hired some 40 employees, many of whom are Ph.D-level scientists, and received 400 applications for positions — in contrast to a typical year, which brings in less than half that.

By the end of 2013, the center expects to have 75 or 80 employees, Hyde said, a big step toward its end goal of 300 workers. Although the lab will give rise to a host of technical and support jobs, the emphasis right now is on hiring researchers, which will eventually account for about 120 jobs at the center.

Most recently, Charles Lee signed on as chief scientific director. Lee, who directed the molecular genetics research unit at Brigham and Women's Hospital and the cytogenetics facility for the Harvard Cancer Center in Boston, was a real coup for the center, Hyde said.

The lab also touts its eight principal investigators, of which McKeon is one. While their new labs are still under construction, these and 17 additional research staff are already at work in space rented from the University of Connecticut.

Jackson Laboratory is ideally positioned to attract top-notch personnel, Hyde said, especially as other universities slash their research budgets.

"Virtually all of the state universities are suffering really big budget cuts these days," he said. "Every state in the union is facing its own version of the recession."

But in the face of those disappointing prospects, the bioscience community is afire with the possibilities in genomics, where scientists attempt to link patients' DNA to specific medical conditions, and unlock new cures.

"Genomics in medicine is a very powerful force today that is sweeping the country, and the world," Hyde said. And although every related university and research center is working in this area to some degree, Jackson's history with genetic research has given it a strong reputation among the community of scientists working on the topic — a community Hyde described as being both "global and close-knit."

Jackson does indeed have a strong reputation, said Susan Froshauer, president and CEO of CURE, or Connecticut United for Research Excellence, a state group that supports bioscience growth.

Jackson, headquartered in Bar Harbor, Maine and with one California location, has been world-renowned for its testing on mice, she said, and new CEO Edison Liu is a big name in the field, and has done great things to articulate Jackson's research both stateside and abroad.

What's more, she said, the first group of researchers will truly get to make their mark on this project, seeing the lab and its work form from the ground up.

"That's fun, to be part of that as a scientist," Froshauer said. "It's an adventure."

The research center will likely also birth new start-up companies that can put the lab's breakthroughs into action — and further boost the economic output of Connecticut's investment.

McKeon, who helps run a lab dedicated to stem cells, lung regeneration and cancer, previously worked at Harvard University and has done work abroad in Singapore. He agreed that Connecticut's growth in the area of genomic research could spur more start-up innovation clusters, the likes of which already dot other research-heavy areas.

"There's no reason that it all has to go on in Boston or San Francisco or San Diego," he said.

But for the moment, researchers are mostly concerned with getting the lab formed and making headway on some seemingly intractable problems in medicine. There's a lot in medicine that scientists simply don't understand, he said. Even common ailments like diabetes hold a lot of mysteries, and those are significant needs that scientists are hoping to address with new research.

"There's the dedicated hope that, if you put all these bright minds together … you're going to solve these things," he said.

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