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Maine institute to shut down its centerpiece research

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What was supposed to have been a major biomedical research center in Maine when it was unveiled in 2005 is shutting down the centerpiece of its program in September due to lack of public and private funding, according to the Bangor Daily News. The Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health will no longer carry out its primary purpose, which was to explore the links between environmental exposures to arsenic, radon and other toxic materials and cancer.

Dr. Erik Steele, chief medical officer of the institute’s corporate parent Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, has served as executive director of the MIHGH since last fall. He told the newspaper it would take at least $5 million a year for five years to keep the program alive. A private consultant told Steele the institute is “just too small be competitive.”

Increased competition nationwide for government research funding and private industry investment, in combination with the widespread economic downturn and general budget-tightening for hospitals and health care systems, Steele said, have made it necessary to discontinue the ambitious central mission of MIHGH. About 20 people will lose their jobs as a result.

The center was paid for by taxpayer-approved bonds and a $7 million grant from the Department of Defense. When opened in 2005, the institute was to be the cornerstone of a regional biomedical research triangle with Eastern Maine Medical Center, The Jackson Laboratory and the University of Maine as key partners. Unlike conducting bench research or clinical trials alone, MIHGH was to specialize in “translational” studies that bridge the two.

EMHS is committed to maintaining the institute’s Sylvan Road lab and the high-end equipment it houses, Steele said, and other research projects headquartered there will continue. Those projects include studies conducted by research faculty at the University of Maine and Husson University, as well as some projects affiliated with The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor. In addition, MIHGH will continue to offer commercial services for other researchers, including DNA analysis and other “high-end” lab services, Steele said.

UMaine vice president for research Michael Eckardt said two faculty researchers and several graduate students are currently engaged in “very productive” projects at MIHGH and have been assured they will be allowed to finish those projects. Eckardt said EMHS has been forthright about the “somewhat disappointing” changes at MIHGH and is working to help identify alternative research sites for UMaine students. The Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences has to date enrolled between 20 and 30 students, he said.

Steele said MIHGH has accomplished a lot in its brief tenure, including attracting new research and clinical expertise to the area, forging collaborative relationships with other facilities, and achieving national recognition for its work in cancer epidemiology.

Steele said Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems will continue to support clinical trials and other primary care initiatives. “We’ll be looking closely at the science of delivering health care to rural populations,” he told the Bangor Daily News. “It’s closer to what we do every day.”

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