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UMass Amherst gets $95m life sciences grant

Patrick Administration doles out more than $100 million for western Mass. life sciences projects

Two Western Massachusetts projects have won state grants totaling $100.5 million, including a $95 million award to the University of Massachusetts Amherst that is the largest so far under the $1 billion life sciences initiative launched by Governor Deval Patrick six years ago.

Patrick and officials from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, the quasi-public agency set up to administer the initiative, unveiled the grants Thursday at an Amherst event that raised hopes for the blossoming of a small biomedical cluster in that part of the state.

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“We’re using these capital dollars to invest in projects that strengthen the resources of different areas of the state and unleash life sciences activity,” said Susan Windham-Bannister, president of the life sciences center. “In any innovation sector, academic institutions play a critical role. They train the next generation of leaders, and often companies come out of their labs.”

UMass Amherst already spent $157 million — raised through state and university bonds — to build a Life Sciences Laboratories building that will formally open this summer. But about half of the building remains empty “shell space.” The new grant will be used to fill several floors with research equipment, ranging from instruments that identify drug targets to machines for manufacturing biosensor devices to analyze people’s health and fitness.

The university’s lab building will house three new research centers led by UMass faculty in partnership with life sciences companies in the region. Those centers will work on personalized health monitoring; ways to more efficiently administer drugs, vaccines, and plant-based nutrients; and, translating neurodegenerative disease research into therapeutics. All are building on research niches where there already is expertise at UMass and in Western Massachusetts.

“As a major research university, we know we need to be making investments in life sciences infrastructure,” said UMass Amherst chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy. “This is going to make the UMass Amherst research profile more prominent. It’s going to help us attract students and faculty. And it’s going to make us a center of industry collaboration and technology transfer.”

In addition to the university’s $95 million grant, the life sciences center will award $5.5 million to the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute, a joint venture of UMass Amherst and Baystate Medical Center, to support development of a new Center of Innovation in Health Informatics and Technology next to Baystate Medical’s campus in the north end of Springfield. The medical center is the largest health care provider in Western Massachusetts.

Both grants were written into earmarks that were part of the 2007 legislation that created the Patrick administration’s life sciences initiative, although the specific projects receiving funds had to be developed and approved by the life sciences center.

As an initial part of the grant to UMass Amherst, the center awarded the university $300,000 to come up with a concept that played to the strengths of the region in life sciences, according to Windham-Bannister.

Thursday’s awards underscored the role of the life sciences initiative in infusing the UMass system with increasingly scarce public funds at a time of higher education budget cuts at state colleges and universities across the nation. Until now, the center’s largest capital project grant had been $90 million to help bankroll the Albert Sherman Center, a research building at the UMass Medical School in Worcester in 2009.

The life sciences center also has sprinkled grants on UMass campuses in Boston, Lowell, and Dartmouth, including $20.6 million last year to the Massachusetts Accelerator for Biomanufacturing, a Fall River facility operated by UMass Dartmouth.

Business leaders in Western Massachusetts hope the UMass Amherst grant, and the opening of the university’s new labs, can spur growth in industries such as advance manufacturing, where automated factories turn out parts for medical devices and diagnostic gear. Edward T. Leyden, president of Ben Franklin Design and Manufacturing Co. in Agawam, said medical components currently make up a small share of his business, but he expects it to expand.

“We’ve done a lot of investing in research and development in Massachusetts, but when it comes to manufacturing, a lot of it leaves the state,” said Leyden, who cochairs the industry-led Advanced Manufacturing Collaborative. Bringing Western Massachusetts manufacturers together with life sciences researchers could help reverse that trend, he said.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.
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