BAR HARBOR — In opening the annual meeting, board Chair Peter Allen called the MDI Biological Laboratory (MDIBL) faculty the “real meat of the organization. Their peer-reviewed grant funding is remarkable; the science stood up to the challenges of peer review and is a tribute to their hard work, brilliance and ingenuity.”
MDIBL President Kevin Strange, whom Allen thanked for continuing the growth of the lab, detailed the laboratory’s many accomplishments in the last year. Strange attributed the success not only to the quality of science but also to government funding. The laboratory receives 24 percent of its operating budget from grants and 45 percent from other federal grants and contracts.
In 2016, the INBRE (Idea Network of Biological Research Excellence) provided grants to 16 undergraduates from Maine colleges. The INBRE, a network of 13 Maine public and private colleges, universities and research institutions, provides opportunities for students to conduct hands-on research and to work independently and collaboratively.
Thanks to the research of Assistant Professor Voot Yin and his team, the lab received its first patent for a potential drug that holds hope it will help regenerate heart muscle tissue following a heart attack; the drug is going through clinical trials at Novo Bioscience, a spin-off of the MDIBL.
Assistant Professor Sandra Rieger received a highly competitive $1.8 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to study how chemotherapy induces peripheral neuropathy – nerve damage in hands and feet. Rieger will conduct this research with scientists at the Mayo Clinic. In the past year, Rieger was awarded provisional patent protection for two compounds that could be used to treat potentially disabling pain, tingling and numbness in patients with peripheral neuropathy.
The MDI Biological Laboratory expanded its faculty: It hired Assistant Professor James Godwin, who studies heart and limb regeneration; Assistant Professor Samuel Beck, who conducts research on age-related diseases; and senior staff scientist Joel Graber, who directs the computational biology and bioinformatics core.
In addition, the lab introduced new courses on innovation and entrepreneurial-based learning to assist high school and college students in successfully developing careers in biomedical science in the 21st century.
This year is the final year of the $13 million COBRE (Center of Biomedical Research Excellence) grant that supports the Davis Center for Regenerative Biology and Medicine. This award can be renewed for up to 10 years and $18-22 million. Strange expects to write the renewal grant this fall.
That the MDIBL has complied with all the terms of the grant should enhance the possibility that it will be renewed. COBRE funding specifies that the lab hire new researchers who must “graduate” from the program within three to four years. “Graduating” means acquiring their own research grants. When Dustin Updike, for example, received independent funding, the lab hired another COBRE scientist, Vicki Losick, who has just received the highly prestigious outstanding investigator award, a first for the laboratory, said Strange. Given the success of the initial COBRE cohort, the lab will recruit three to five new faculty members.
With the dedication last week of the Maine Center for Biomedical Innovation, a building constructed with a $3 million state bond, the MDIBL has the space it needs to hire additional scientists and to attract emerging life science and technology companies. “Our goal is to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem for Maine that trains students to adapt to a rapidly changing job marketplace,” said Strange, “and to provide entrepreneurs with the skills and resources to turn their ideas into new products.”
Both Strange and state Rep. Brian Hubbell pointed out that the new facility, which can provide space and lab support for up to five companies, is essential for Maine’s economy and improving research and development in the state.
In his treasurer’s report, Thomas Boyd said that the lab’s total net assets at the end of 2016 increased by approximately $1.4 million over 2015.
In concluding remarks, Allen acknowledged Spencer Irvin, who stepped down after 17 years on the board, many of them in charge of the auditing committee. “Before moving to Maine with his wife, Floy, Spencer practiced law in Philadephia. Both are part of the fabric of the island and MDIBL communities,” said Allen. “Driving north with one of my lawyer friends, Spencer’s name came up. He described him well: Spencer comes to an argument having done his homework; he actually listens to the other side and is willing to alter his argument or concept. Even if they still disagree, he is the consummate gentleman who shakes your hand. Thank you, Spencer, for your years of service and being that consummate gentleman.”