URMC Leads Statewide Initiative to Put Powerful Technology In The Hands of Researchers

February 17, 2004

It’s a gadget the size of a matchbox.  But to scientists it’s a marvel, one of the most powerful inventions since the microscope.  The device, called a microarray, can scan thousands of genes in a cell and reveal which ones are “turned on” and operating inside the cell.  To scientists such information is gold:  Knowing which genes are turned on at a given moment – when a healthy cell begins to turn cancerous, for example – can reveal the genetic causes of a disease.    

Microarrays are relatively cheap – a few hundred dollars each – but the computers and robotic equipment needed to “read” them and analyze the data can fill a small room and cost millions.  So while scientists everywhere are eager to use microarrays in their research, only those at large universities and pharmaceutical companies are fortunate enough to have the coveted technology at their disposal.

In New York State, that is about to change.  In a publicly funded initiative that is the first of its kind in the nation, 10 universities and medical research institutions across the state will open the doors of their microarray reading facilities to every scientist in the state – including industry researchers at more than 100 biotech and pharmaceutical companies statewide. 

The initiative, called the AMDeC Microarray Resource Center, is being funded by a $3.8 million grant from New York State and AMDeC (the Academic Medical Center Development Corporation), a consortium of 39 New York State medical schools, academic health centers, and research institutions.  The Center will be led by Andrew Brooks, Ph.D., assistant professor of Environmental Medicine and director of the Functional Genomics Center at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. 

By helping individual scientists, the initiative aims to boost the life-science sector of the state’s economy.   With microarrays, researchers at fledgling biotech start-ups will be able to speed the development of new diagnostic and therapeutic products.  Their counterparts at larger pharmaceutical companies, which usually have in-house microarray facilities to support their R&D efforts, will be able to tap into the universities for specialized equipment or expertise they may lack.  Scientists and students at small and mid-sized colleges across the state will have full access to the Microarray Resource Center as well, opening new scientific and commercial possibilities in areas as diverse as plant biology, agriculture, and the environment.  

 “The Microarray Resource Center will be a tremendous benefit to medical researchers in New York State,” said Maria Mitchell, Ph.D., president and CEO of AMDeC.  We believe that expanding access to state-of-the-art technologies will help us attract more scientists and science-based businesses to New York.” 

As part of the initiative, the 10 partnering institutions are developing unique capabilities aimed at making New York an attractive center for “big science” – research projects so large in scope that they can only be tackled by a consortium of research institutions.  For example: 

  • The group is developing protocols to ensure that microarrays are handled, processed, and read using identical methods across all 10 institutions.  This standardization would, for example, make it possible for a global pharmaceutical to enlist all 10 institutions to process and read thousands of microarrays used in a large-scale research project.  Such large-scale projects will be coordinated by the University of Rochester, making it easy for companies to do business with the consortium.    
  • Work has begun on a database that will archive data from microarrays processed by the consortium.  Using the internet, researchers will be able to search the database to see, in previous experiments, which genes were found to be active in specific diseases or in a particular stage of a disease such as cancer or Alzheimer’s.  Teams at Columbia University and New York University are programming the database and plan to launch it this summer  
  • The universities are establishing a gene repository with fragments from most human genes, as well as those of mice and fruit flies, which are often used in research.   The repository will allow researchers to order custom microarrays designed to measure the activity of selected genes, such as those known to be involved in a specific disease.  The repository will be housed jointly at the University of Rochester and the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo.            

Members of the consortium also will coordinate major equipment purchases.  By pooling resources and avoiding redundant purchases of big-ticket items, the consortium hopes to assemble an array of expensive, high-end equipment and specialized capabilities that no single academic institution – or pharmaceutical company – could afford.  They will also use their group purchasing power to get lower prices on microarrays and the chemical reagents used in the reading process.  Lower costs for these supplies, and the universities’ not-for-profit status, will enable the consortium to offer bargain prices to users, who will be charged a fee for each microarray processed.   

“By coming together in this way, we will be able to offer New York’s researchers and companies something they can’t get anywhere else in the world,” said Brooks.  “There’s simply nothing else like this in the marketplace.”

The 10 institutions that form the AMDeC Microarray Resource Center are:  Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Cornell University, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York State Department of Health, Rockefeller University, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, State University of New York at Buffalo, State University of New York at Stony Brook, and the University of Rochester.

Further information about AMDeC is available at www.amdec.org.

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Christopher DiFrancesco
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