Research magnet

Federal grants flowing into Rhode Island's hospitals and universities attract scientists and spark economic development

01:00 AM EST on Sunday, November 20, 2005

Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE -- Some people come to Providence for the restaurants. Art Salomon came to Providence for the mass spectrometer.

Salomon, a researcher and assistant professor in the department of molecular biology, cellular biology and biochemistry at Brown University, relocated from San Diego because Brown received an $11-million grant this fall from the National Institutes of Health.

Lured by the chance to do complicated cellular research, Salomon moved across country, and is now using complex equipment -- including the mass spectrometer, which houses a magnet strong enough to pull objects across a room -- to study "how cells are wired." The goal is to figure out how normal cells behave and how they become cancerous, so doctors and medical researchers can work on better treatment methods, said Salomon.

"I came to Brown to do this research," he said. "The [grant] is one of the things that attracted me."

Although the NIH views the grants as a way to improve the research capacity of educational institutions, local economic development officials see them as a way to reposition the state's economy, said Saul Kaplan, deputy director of business development and innovation for the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation. The grants encourage innovation, attract educated workers such as Salomon and act as a magnet for other research financing. Often the research is used to form the basis for commercial companies.

The grants "are very important to our innovation agenda," said Kaplan. "We're paying a lot of attention to this, and it's a very important part of how we're going to strengthen our economy and add high-wage jobs."

The grant Salomon is working with came from the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) program at the NIH. The program is focused on creating cores of study at educational institutions in states that have historically received lower amounts of federal research dollars. The five-year, $11-million grant Brown received last month is an extension of an $11.9-million, five-year grant Brown received from the same NIH program in 2000.

Rhode Island is one of 23 states eligible for COBRE grants through NIH's Institutional Development Award (IDEA) Program. The system was set up to get research dollars into states where the success rate for NIH grant applications has been low, according to the NIH's Web site. NIH financing in Rhode Island, including COBRE grants, rose 14.2 percent between 2002 and 2003, to $131.3 million, according to an analysis by the state's Slater Technology Fund. But that doesn't compare with its larger, research-heavy neighbors. Massachusetts' institutions pulled in $2.2 billion in NIH financing in 2003 and Connecticut pulled in $418 million, according to the analysis.

Over the past five years, Rhode Island educational institutions have qualified for five COBRE grants. In addition to the two grants Brown received, Rhode Island Hospital got one in October 2002 for $8.2 million to study how cancer develops. In September 2003, Roger Williams Medical Center received a $13.3-million grant for the study of bone marrow stem cells and Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island received an $8.9-million grant for the study of the heart and liver.

The University of Rhode Island also received an $8-million grant in 2001 under a separate IDEA program that focused on building a network of biomedical researchers across a state.

"The NIH is a good starting-off point," said Filip Ksiazkiewicz, an associate economist with Pennslyvania-based, a national economic research firm. "It assures you have a sustainable level of funding for a few years . . . [and] you get that first burst of highly educated workers coming in."

The COBRE grants have directly created approximately 63 new jobs at the educational institutions. More importantly, though, with the grant money the schools and hospitals have been able to invest in a gamma cell irradiator, a histopathology laboratory and a system for identifying the proteins found in diseases, according to Wendy Lawton a spokeswoman for Brown. Such equipment can be used by researchers other than those who applied for the grant, fostering collaboration among departments in an institution and among different universities. This equimpent allows other researchers, besides those funded directly by the grant, to make medical discoveries and possibly start companies.

For example, the research of 28 faculty members in different departments at Brown was supported with the first COBRE grant that Brown received, said John Sedivy, chairman of the department of molecular biology, cell biology and biochemistry at Brown.

"Before the advent of the COBRE centers, Rhode Island was technologically challenged in the terms of biomedical research," said Douglas Hixson, professor of medicine and pathology at Brown University, director of the cancer research laboratory at Rhode Island Hospital and the researcher who applied for the hospital's COBRE grant. "Now, Rhode Island is, if anything, ahead of the game. It has some of the best-equipped research facilities in Rhode Island and Southern New England and that has really moved research ahead."

And successful companies are often launched from research started at universities -- such as Foxboro's Cyberkinetics,which is based on research done at Brown, said Richard Horan, managing director of the state's Slater Technology Fund. The biotechnology company was launched in Rhode Island and then relocated to Massachusetts. Fueling that basic research at the university level is key to creating innovative companies, he said.

"There's this notion of an [economic] value chain that runs from the basic biomedical research in the academic institutions, which then become start-up companies that raise money," said Horan. The Slater fund invests state money in entrepreneurs and researchers looking to turn research from university laboratories into companies.

"It's a long-term proposition, and it starts with basic federal research funding," he said.

Rhode Island Hospital is seeing that sort of company creation from its COBRE grant already. One researcher, who is being partially financed by the grant, has already started a company to begin marketing a blood protein that has shown success in stopping infections in cancer patients, said Hixson.

Local researchers, though, say they don't take the money for granted. Sedivy and the others are concerned that money will grow scarce as research becomes less of a policy priority in light of the federal budget deficit and increases in defense spending. But NIH spending on basic biomedical research has continued to increase over the past eight years, although at a slower rate, said Horan. The NIH spent $14.4 billion on biomedical financing in 1998, increasing the amount 10 percent in 1999 to $15.9 billion. Although financing only increased 2.6 percent between fiscal years 2004 and 2005, spending was $28.8 billion for fiscal 2005, according to Horan.

And Rhode Island's success in attracting NIH money shouldn't be a deterrent to additional dollars flowing from the federal government either, said Fred Taylor, the IDEA program director at the NIH.

"We would expect the funding to the state of Rhode Island to increase," he said.

For state economic development officials, the increased financing over the past five years has been key for jump-starting a new evolution of the economy. The state is working to position itself as an innovative place for companies to do business, said Kaplan, and this type of research is essential to that effort.

"The COBRE program, which brings NIH resources into the state, is a key part of that innovation agenda," he said.