|Page 4 September 1999|
million contract helps AHC computerize DNA studies
"This really gives us a structure that other departments and programs can use to apply to their research.. We're very open to collaborating with other people on campus."
AHC research computing office
Ernie Retzel is leading the two-year effort to develop computer systems to develop quicker methods to map the genomes of plants
--Photo by Mark Engebretson
Bolstered by a $2 million contract from the Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute, the AHC’s research computing office is busy developing computer systems to analyze DNA sequencing information for mapping plant genomes.
The systems will weed out information on known genes, while tagging important new genetic information. Initially, the systems are being used to help scientists map genomes of crops. Novartis is interested in analyzing rice, which is considered a model organism for studying genomes of other crops, such as wheat, oats, corn, and barley.
“Generation of DNA sequence data is a random process and the data is very disorganized, which makes analysis a complex computer problem,” said Ernest Retzel, director of the AHC research computing office and the project leader.
The ultimate goal of understanding crop genomes is to increase food production and to make crops disease-resistant and tolerant of harsh weather conditions.
That’s important because “world food production increases incrementally, at about 5 to 7 percent a year, while population growth is exponential,” Retzel says.
The new computer systems can also be applied to other genetics research within the AHC and other parts of the University, Retzel said. “We’re open to collaborating with other people on campus,” he added.
Retzel’s group is already working with Ron Phillips, agronomy/plant genetics, on a maize genome project; Nevin Young, plant pathology, on soybeans; Craig Beattie, veterinary medicine, on swine genetics; and Vivek Kapur, veterinary medicine, on sequencing a bacterial genome. Retzel says the systems will also be useful for studying the genetics of human diseases.
“Bioinformatics is absolutely essential to the success of functional genomics,” said Frank Cerra, senior vice president for health sciences.
“Ernie Retzel and his group are leaders in this area, and the Novartis grant is a good example of the excellence in functional genomics that is developing at the University.”
Retzel credited Cerra “for believing in bioinformatics and genomics before it became popular,” and said his support was critical in winning the Novartis grant. The U of M competed against other universities, private industry, and the National Center for Genome Resources.
Under terms of the two-year contract, the University owns the systems, software, and the intellectual property it creates, Retzel said. Novartis will have access to the system and rights to future renewals.
School Helps AHC researchers form companies
Faculty within the AHC have started 10 companies in the last four years
A maturing partnership between the Office of Patents and Technology Marketing (PTM) and the Carlson School of Business is making it easier for U of M scientists to start their own companies.
The partnership has existed for five years, but it was a year ago that the joint effort started to really shine—about the time that Doug Johnson became co-director of the Carlson School’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.
Johnson, who spent 10 years as a venture capitalist, has made a point of lending the Carlson School’s ample business expertise to the U’s top scientists to help them develop companies to commercialize their inventions.
“The whole idea is to try to put the resources of the Carlson School at the disposal of faculty members and people who want to investigate the business side of technology deals,” Johnson said. “And in doing so, we’ve tried to provide new learning opportunity for students.”
“There’s some good collaboration going on there,” said Jim Severson, director of health technologies for PTM. Johnson’s assistance, he said, has helped the U keep up with national growth in faculty start-up companies. Within the AHC, there have been 10 start-ups in the last four years.
“I think the general climate across universities has evolved to a stage where faculty start-ups are considered to be a more acceptable practice,” Severson said. “Also, it makes a huge difference, I think, when faculty hear it from the top—from people like President Mark Yudof—that these are activities we want faculty more involved in. The AHC, in particular, is doing a better job to facilitate these kinds of developments and relationships.”
Johnson said the increase in start-ups is due to two main factors: “First, there’s a lot of venture capital available—probably more than ever. Second, it’s now socially acceptable for entrepreneurs to start companies.”
The upside for faculty members, naturally, is the potential for greater income, and the satisfaction of seeing their technological innovation improve health care.
For the University, there’s also the potential for additional income, if the U becomes an equity partner in a faculty start-up company.
“Another advantage of encouraging faculty to start their own companies is that it helps to retain creative and energetic faculty,” Severson said.
“Additionally, part of the University’s mission is to put the technology out in the public domain—there’s a strong public-benefit theme that runs through these kinds of things.”
Perhaps the biggest downside is the potential for a conflict of commitment.
Severson stressed that University committees and oversight mechanisms exist to avoid conflicts. Overall, he said the U and the AHC are very encouraging and supportive of faculty who start their own companies. An example of that, he said, is the partnership with the Carlson School.
“The more of these start-ups that can be successful, the better,” Severson said. “It’s not enough to do the deal—you want the deal to be successful.” There should be more success stories, thanks to the help of the Carlson School, Severson said.
Sr. VP's office is restructured
Changes have been made in the administrative structure of the senior vice president’s office in order to strengthen support for intercollegiate programs.
Roby Thompson, formerly associate vice president for clinical affairs, has been named associate vice president for academic affairs. In this new position, Thompson will reduce his time from 100 to 75 percent, but expand the scope of his responsibilities to include education and research as well as clinical affairs. Thompson also will represent the senior vice president’s office on the AHC-FCC Faculty Affairs Sub-Committee.
Mark Paller has been reassigned to assistant vice president for research. Paller, who will report to Thompson, will assume responsibility for the competitive research grant process and for facilitating interscholastic research while continuing as director of the Research Services Office. He will devote 75 percent time to these administrative duties and 25 percent time to his work in the Department of Medicine.
John Fetrow, who has been managing a series of research and education related projects, has returned to the College of Veterinary Medicine faculty.
The Sr. VP’s Office has posted a position for an assistant vice president for education. The assistant VP will serve as “principal investigator” and administrator of the AHC’s annual $8 million appropriation from the tobacco settlement endowment, which is designated for developing interscholastic, community-based health professional education programs.
He or she will also administer the AHC’s education grant program. This
position will be 75 to 100 percent time
reports $25.4 million in annual contributions,
a 21 percent increase
The Minnesota Medical Foundation received more than $25.4 million in contributions supporting medical and public health research and education for the fiscal year ended June 30—a 21 percent increase over 1997-98. The number of donors, more than 15,000, increased by more than 21 percent this year, and nearly 3,000 Medical School alumni—out of 9,600—made financial contributions to Medical School programs in 1998-99. MMF contributed $14.6 million in endowment investment earnings to more than 1,500 research and education projects during the fiscal year. In addition, MMF awarded $835,000 from its grants program for 90 research projects and equipment purchases, $685,000 in scholarships to a record number of Medical School students (437), and $640,000 in loans to 438 students.
million Beckman grant goes to
new genetics, cell biology department
The U will receive up to $2.5 million over five years for the development of “Sleeping Beauty,” a novel system for transferring genes into vertebrate cells.
The Department of Genetics, Cell Biology, and Development—a new joint department of the Medical School and the College of Biological Sciences—is one of two recipients of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation Technology Development Grant.
The investigators are Stephen Ekker, Perry Hackett, David Largaespada, and Scott McIvor. The grant will help establish the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center for Transposon Research at the U. More than 90 institutions applied for the grant.
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