Feature Stories

Growing Life Sciences

State funding supports unprecedented research on campus and in region
  • Life Science Laboratories Exterior

"UMass Amherst is to be commended for engaging a broad cross section of the Massachusetts life sciences community in this effort as well as its faculty. The programs will result in many opportunities for engaging and enhancing growth of companies both locally and throughout the region." -Steve Gilman, executive VP for R&D, Cubist Pharmaceuticals

Collaborative, interdisciplinary partnerships prove an efficient way to see basic science through to translation and now, with its Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS), UMass Amherst is leading the way in life science research and innovation. Already highly regarded for life sciences research, high-tech computation, and precision manufacturing, the commonwealth is investing $100.5 million in the campus and its partner, Baystate Health Systems, to leverage existing assets, build translational capacity, and expand the life sciences industry ecosystem in western Massachusetts and beyond.

The bulk of the capital grant ($95 million) enables outfitting of the campus’s new Life Science Laboratories, which will house three unique IALS translational life science centers, while an additional $5.5 million will fund a fourth at the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute (PVLSI), a partnership between the campus and nearby Baystate Medical Center. The centers will enhance the campus’s engagement with industry by linking academic leaders in their field with regional industry strengths. Partnerships will catalyze technology development so that scientific discoveries and innovations can be more swiftly translated into products and services to benefit the public.

Because each of these centers is being outfitted with state-of-the-art instrumentation unparalleled in the region, there is already keen interest in joint research. The capital funding, announced by Governor Deval Patrick on June 6 and awarded through the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC), supports the application of fundamental life sciences research to areas where it can have the most impact.

“Our grant of nearly $95 million will enhance the university’s role in research and training, but it will also enhance the university’s engagement with industry by creating three new and cutting-edge centers on the UMass Amherst campus,” says Susan Windham-Bannister, Mass Life Sciences Center director.

Industrial Collaborators Are Key

The three centers—Personalized Health Monitoring, Models to Medicine, and Bioactive Delivery—along with the Baystate Healthcare Informatics and Technology Innovation Center each have a specific focus. Center concepts emerged from a process devoted to illuminating what lies at the intersection of industry needs and UMass Amherst research strengths. Spearheaded by the UMass Amherst Innovation Institute (UMII), this process involved more than 150 industry representatives and nearly 100 faculty members in dozens of community workshops, meetings, and review sessions.

“UMass Amherst is to be commended for engaging a broad cross-section of the Massachusetts life sciences community in this effort as well as its faculty. The programs will result in many opportunities for engaging and enhancing growth of companies both locally and throughout the region, from precision manufacturers to biopharmaceutical companies, health IT firms, and medical tech firms,” says Steve Gilman, executive vice president for R&D at Cubist Pharmaceuticals in Lexington, Mass.

The basic research framework underpinning these new centers has been in development at UMass Amherst for years. Now IALS will build on that framework by applying clinical and industrial networks to facilitate translation.

“Our key task is to quickly and efficiently move new technologies and scientific capabilities developed in our laboratories into the real-world economy,” says UMII Executive Director James Capistran. He notes that the authorizing legislation for this capital grant mandates a focus on UMass-industry collaborations to develop new commercial products and services in the life sciences. “We’ve streamlined the process so that all parties to our agreements can realize maximum benefit in a timely way that’s responsive to markets and business cycles.”

New Centers Address Big Challenges

The Center for Personalized Health Monitoring (PHM) is the largest of the three IALS centers. PHM scientists are working on multi-functional, wearable, wireless sensor systems that capture and analyze patient-level data in real time. From the electrical engineers working on the circuitry at the core of these devices, to the polymer scientists experimenting with ways to reduce their size, to the mechanical and industrial engineers creating product designs, to the kinesiologists conducting validation and testing—the PHM initiative uniquely employs a vertically integrated approach to research that will see biosensor development through from basic science to product testing.

“I can envision our local companies partnering with UMass Amherst in the development of new devices that can be transitioned to new products. I also appreciate the concept of having prototyping development facilities that are accessible to the precision machining companies. Having the ability to look at new products from design to prototyping would be extremely useful,” says Omer Gingras, president of the Western Massachusetts National Tooling and Machining Association.

Researchers in the Center for Models to Medicine center are translating fundamental discoveries in molecular biology and biochemistry into the identification and validation of new therapeutic targets. Their initial focus is protein homeostasis—a rapidly emerging field that seeks to illuminate the intricate mechanisms governing the expression, function, and fate of cellular proteins fundamental to the operation of many biological processes. A wave of discoveries over the last decade reveals imbalances in protein homeostasis in several diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and cancer. UMass Amherst has an international reputation in this field and will work with the pharmaceutical industry to revolutionize current strategies for discovering new drugs.

In the Center for Bioactive Delivery, expertise in polymer science, chemistry, and food sciences will be used to develop innovative drug delivery vehicles. Like special-delivery trucks, these agents will be optimized for specific payloads, thus increasing therapeutic precision by directing bioactive compounds to the right place at the right time in the right amount. The new funding will support carrier synthesis along with analytical, biophysical, and bioinformatics capabilities, enabling the center to move toward transforming the delivery field to a more predictable science. In drug development, where many products with on-target efficacy fail due to delivery issues, this more quantitative approach has potential to change the way we look at drug delivery products.

Each of the Institute’s three centers will be housed side by side in the new Life Sciences Laboratories. The new building also incorporates “collaboratory” spaces—laboratories specifically designed for temporary occupancy by industry researchers to facilitate collaboration between campus faculty and students with industry scientists.

Region to Benefit

To complement IALS, Baystate Medical Center’s new Healthcare Informatics Technology Innovation Center (HITIC) will serve as a test bed for product development. The MLSC funding supports HITIC hardware, network connectivity, and overall reconstruction to provide a space where products can be developed and tested. Simultaneously, biostatisticians at the UMass Amherst Institute for Computational Biology, Biostatistics, and Bioinformatics are using the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in nearby Holyoke to develop new tools for sifting through large amounts of data generated by personal monitors, biosensors, and patient-level studies.

IALS researchers are also forging partnerships with the UMass Medical School’s Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences (UMCCTS) to ensure their work can be tested in a clinical setting. In the area of personalized health monitoring, for example, UMass Amherst kinesiologist Patty Freedson and her team have joined forces with physicians David Ayers and Patricia Franklin at the UMass Medical School (Orthopedics and Physical Rehabilitation) to study physical activity and sedentary behavior in patients with osteoarthritis. Patients in the study wear an accelerometer sensor that differentiates postural positions. With funding through the UMCCTS Moment Fund, Freedson quantifies how much sitting, standing, and stepping osteoarthritis patients do and how these behaviors change during disease progression.

Within a small geographical area lies a critical mass of experts who are now joining forces across disciplines to bring about change. UMass IALS presents an enormous opportunity not only to impact human health but to expand regional economic development, education, and workforce training.

“This grant positions us for new directions in translational research and for increased engagement with industry and other educational institutions in western Massachusetts and throughout the Commonwealth. UMass is committed to growing these relationships to advance economic development as part of our land-grant mission,” says UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy.

Amanda Drane '12