Clinical Analysis

Life Sciences Center Helps Turn Good Research into Good Health

To Dr. Lawrence Schwartz, the life sciences are about bridging a gap.

“A lot of our activity is in transitional research,” said Schwartz, science director of the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute (PVLSI) in Springfield. “We’re trying to take the discoveries we make in the lab setting and move those to clinical applications. There’s a big gap there.”

A recent $3 million grant from the Mass. Technology Collaborative (MTC) will help the institute — a scientific research partnership between Baystate Medical Center and UMass Amherst — make that kind of connection in a field called apoptosis. That’s the study of cell death, a normal process that, when it goes haywire, is a key factor in many types of disease.

Schwartz, who is also a faculty member at UMass, explained that a better understanding of how apoptosis works on a tissue-specific basis may potentially open opportunities for treating, preventing, or delaying the onset of various types of cancer, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases, and neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

“People always talk about promising new research, but much of it never makes it to clinical applications,” he said. “We want to bridge the space between clinical science and medicine.”

The institute is doing so by bringing together an impressive — and growing — roster of not only cell and molecular biologists and geneticists, but also experts in computer science, chemical engineering, and other diverse fields to achieve the kind of breakthroughs that can potentially make an imprint on people’s lives, not just on the pages of medical journals.

In doing so, Baystate and UMass hope the partnership, which has been up and running for three years, proves to be an economic driver for Western Mass., incubating biotech startups and attracting established companies in an effort to create a life sciences hub in the Pioneer Valley.

Cell Death, Birth of Knowledge

The PVLSI opened in 2003, with facilities both on Main Street in Springfield and on the UMass campus in Amherst, with the goal of establishing biomedical research programs in areas such as breast cancer, neurodegenerative conditions, and diabetes and other metabolic disorders,

“At this point, we have really gone from a concept to operationalizing the institution,” Schwartz said. “We’ve recruited a number of scientists and have active searches for additional scientists, and we’ve already built out a very strong research program in breast cancer. Those are some of the tangibles we want to see in a robust research program.”

Schwartz said decisions on what fields to study are made simply on the basis of what is most relevant to this region.

“The fields we picked out are ones that are very important to the community; they are public health concerns,” he said. “They’re also fields in which we have a number of pre-existing collaborations” — Baystate’s neighboring Breast Center being one example — “and we want to build more. We have resident expertise in these areas, but these decisions are driven not only by our capabilities, but by the interests of the community.”

To date, the institute has garnered more than $11 million in federal funding and more than $420,000 in private research grants. The latest prize, the $3 million grant from the Mass. Technology Collaborative, will help establish a new program to focus on apoptosis (cell death) — a field in which UMass is already recognized as a research leader, Schwartz said.

That reputation is important, said UMass Chancellor John Lombardi, who noted that he heard doubts several years ago whether the life sciences partnership would work at all, let alone grow and continue to earn research funding. “It succeeded because these enterprises are good,” he said, referring to the hospital and the university.

The institute’s directors recognize that apoptosis is an arcane concept to most people who work outside the science or health field, but researchers believe it’s an important concept when it comes to learning to control and prevent disease.

Apoptosis is a natural process; in fact, millions of your cells are dying as you read this paragraph. This process is normally well-regulated by the body’s cells. However, defects in the control of apoptosis can have damaging effects on the body.

For instance, cells can inappropriately activate the apoptosis program, resulting in the loss of valuable cells, such as neurons in Alzheimer’s disease or heart cells following a heart attack. On other occasions, cells can ignore the body’s instructions to commit suicide, as it were, and persist — which is an essential step in the formation of most cancers and autoimmune diseases.

Recent research has shown that individual cells represent specific genes whose proteins are key to the apoptosis process, and that these genes are defective in certain diseases. The research community — including the PVLSI — is now beginning to exploit these insights to make connections between understanding apoptosis and controlling the onset or spread of disease.

“About 70% of human disease results from defects in the regulation of apoptosis,” Schwartz said. “If we can control it, we’ll have a very effective tool for treatment.”

Good Economic Health

Clearly, Schwartz is talking about global goals when he describes the health potential of such research. But the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute has always had a second goal — the economic health of the region, and especially the potential of Western Mass. to become a hub of biotechnology and life sciences research.

“This center presents an enormous opportunity for the Pioneer Valley to reap the vast economic benefits from the state’s growing life sciences sector, which is critical to our high-tech, knowledge-based economy in Massachusetts,” said Patrick Larkin, director of the John Adams Innovation Institute, the development arm of the Mass. Technology Collaborative.

At a recent ceremony announcing the $3 million grant, Springfield Mayor Charles Ryan made the connection between such goals and the economic improvements that Baystate has already made on Springfield’s north side, investing some $100 million in medical and research facilities along the Main Street corridor.
Ryan noted that he inherited some unfortunate circumstances when elected mayor three years ago, “but I also inherited this, which is great for the North End of Springfield.”

Dr. Paul Friedmann, executive director of the PVLSI, envisions economic development that reaches far broader horizons. The institute has already formed partnerships with private industry, working to develop new technologies in the life sciences with an eye toward commercialization.

For example, the institute has helped a company called Biomedical Research Models, which has space in the life sciences building on Main Street, achieve federal funding for work on congestive heart failure — a condition that costs Medicare billions of dollars a year. “They in turn have a large subcontract with us that provides many services that we need,” Schwartz said.

He and Friedmann see more of these partnerships arising in the future. Similarly, the John Adams Innovation Institute is committed to improving the Bay State’s competitive edge in knowledge- and technology-based industries, such as the life sciences.

Schwartz noted that he and Friedmann recently participated in a program with U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, U.S. Rep Richard Neal, and officials from both the pharmaceutical industry and government agencies supporting biotechnology and economic development. The dialogue was meant to spur interest in developing the life sciences sector in the western part of the state.

“We want to see a biomedical hub out here, a regional program with incubator space for small startup companies and facilities for larger companies that want to have a presence in Western Mass.,” Schwartz said.

Mark Tolosky, president and CEO of Baystate Health, noted that “we continue to see very significant investment here that will impact our region and beyond.”
Yes, cells may be dying all the time, but medical innovation in the Pioneer Valley is definitely showing signs of life.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at[email protected]