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Research building purchased to house Stem Cell Institute

by David Bauman - February 12, 2007

With authorization from the Board of Trustees, the University has purchased the former FarmTech building near the Health Center in Farmington.

Officials plan to renovate the nearly 113,000-square-foot structure to establish a Center of Innovation that will include the University’s new stem cell institute, along with cutting edge cell biology and genetics research.

The new center will unite UConn scientists in a cross-disciplinary, collaborative setting to enhance Connecticut’s role as a leader in stem cell research and accelerate discoveries that ultimately could lead to therapies treating a broad range of diseases and disorders.

The new facility, located on 24 acres in the 400 block of Farmington Avenue, is expected to open in 2009.

“Our goal is to maximize the state’s investment in stem cell research and establish an internationally recognized program focused on human embryonic stem cells and regenerative medicine,” says Dr. Marc Lalande, chair of the Department of Genetics and Developmental Biology and associate dean for research planning and coordination at the Health Center.

“The Center of Innovation will also allow us to bring together our best researchers to drive research aimed at bringing human stem cell therapies across the street to the Health Center, where someday they can be applied clinically to patients.”

The Health Center will choose a leading laboratory design architecture firm to design the renovation of the FarmTech building. The building will house laboratories doing research on stem cells and related fields, as well as incubator space for businesses eager to commercialize the science.

The architects will be charged with designing a workspace that facilitates interactions among researchers, says Lalande.

The building will house classrooms, wet and dry labs with specialized equipment, and communal areas to support ad hoc collaboration.

The building will also benefit from green technologies wherever possible, including heat-recovery systems and gray water recycling.

The renovations, expected to cost about $35 million, will be paid for without using any federal funding, in compliance with U.S. government rules, which currently block federal money to any scientists working with human embryonic stem cell lines created after August 2001.

But the focus of the Center of Innovation will be broader than stem cells, says Lalande.

“We’re thinking about the intersection of biology, engineering, and computer science, and lots of disciplines that inform those areas,” he says.

“Certainly bioengineering and stem cells can be thought of in the same sentence.”

UConn was awarded nearly $12 million in November to fund 15 research proposals in the first disbursement of funds by Connecticut’s stem cell funding agency. It is expected that many of those researchers will move to the refurbished Farmington laboratories by the end of 2009.

The research programs include a large project in bone biology that will focus on regenerative stem cell therapies to repair massive bone injuries such as those suffered by U.S. armed forces in Iraq.

Other projects focus on the basic properties of stem cells such as the discovery of molecules that guide stem cells into becoming a particular type of tissue, and research to develop new techniques to manipulate stem cells to perform certain specialized functions.

Another centerpiece of the new institute will be UConn’s human embryonic stem cell core laboratory, now sited at the Health Center.

When Connecticut launched its 10-year stem cell research program in 2005, the University invested more than $2 million in recruiting scientists with expertise in human embryonic stem cell research to set up a core facility that would provide research support and train scientists to culture stem cells.

In November, the state awarded an additional $2.5 million to the UConn core lab in order to provide services in the culture, quality control, and banking of human embryonic stem cell lines, and provide its services and training to researchers throughout the state.

“These monies will allow us to recruit three additional scientists for the core facility so that it can fulfill its training and research mission in support of stem cell scientists from across Connecticut,” Lalande says.

“Support of the state stem cell fund will also allow 19 UConn investigators to initiate stem cell research programs.”

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