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Research institute completed

UC opens new Genome Research Institute

by Mary Niehaus

Mystery. Beauty. Power. The tiny cells that make up the human body boast all three, though few of us give them a second thought.

Internationally distinguished biomedical researcher David Millhorn of UC's College of Medicine has a special appreciation for human cells. Not only for the work they perform, but for the secrets they may reveal about human health.

"Cells are always changing," the researcher points out. "They change during development. They change in women, based on their hormonal cycle. Cells are always varying in their function to allow us to survive. If you were to go to very high altitudes, for example, your cells would respond to the low oxygen environment.

"That's normal. That's the beauty of the way cells work.
"Of course, we'd like to know how cells do that," Millhorn smiles.

What about cancer, when cells go out of control, dividing and invading other tissues and preventing them from working properly? "What we'd like to know about that, from a genetic standpoint, is why those cells start the process of dividing again," he replies.

"But the mystery of science and health is not just in disease. Normal function holds many of the keys to understanding diseases."

That is why researchers will investigate both aspects of cell activity at the University of Cincinnati's new Genome Research Institute, a state-of-the-art operation with Millhorn as director. Sophisticated bioinformatics (computerized analysis of biological data) are ready to support his scientific team's study of information from newly sequenced genome projects, both human and simpler creatures.

"Technology such as genomics (study of genes) and proteomics (study of proteins) will be used hand in hand, to help us understand various complex functions such as how cancer cells become cancer cells," the director explains. "How the hormones work. How the neurons function. What the basis is of neurodegenerative diseases. Those are the types of problems that we want to address."

Millhorn is aware of how fortunate the university is to be able to bring such a research institute to life. The project came together with an amazing synergy: A gift of modern laboratory buildings on a 23-acre site. Excellent scientific staff to get the venture started. Approval to recruit more high-level talent. Enthusiasm from top administrators who see it as a unique opportunity for UC to take national leadership in genomic research.

"This is an opportunity that comes very, very infrequently," says Millhorn, who is also continuing as chairman of molecular and cellular physiology at the College of Medicine. "To have this much laboratory space to create a new research institute is something that very few universities have a chance to enjoy. So it is imperative that we make the best of this."

The University of Cincinnati's new institute for genome research is located in 360,000 square feet of lab and office space formerly occupied by Aventis Pharmaceuticals in nearby Reading, Ohio. The gift, estimated at $100 million to replace, is the largest single donation ever received by UC. Renovations are now under way to adapt laboratories for academic research and to update information technology and environmental systems to university levels.

genome research

"We've identified a core of people who are going out there," institute director David Millhorn reports, "and there is opportunity for others who have research that is within our four identified focus areas: oncology (cancer); cardiovascular-pulmonary (heart, lung disease); endocrinology (diabetes, obesity) and development; and neuroscience (Parkinson's, Alzheimer's).

"We hope to have 50-60 investigators and their staffs, which probably translates into 400 individuals. A good bit of the space will be for new recruitment."

What kind of investigators will be recruited? "Only the most outstanding people," the director quips.

"Seriously, we are going to identify the very best people we can, convince them that this is the best place for them, and have them come here to enhance the research programs we already have, which are good. We'll be recruiting against the best institutions in the country."

Millhorn emphasizes that all researchers will be expected to use genomic approaches in their work, because the university wants to develop "a very powerful infrastructure" using this approach. "We think this is the future of doing biology," he confirms.

Scientific exploration at the institute will bring economic as well as medical benefits to the Cincinnati region, because many of the investigators will be interested in starting biotechnology companies based on their discoveries. There is precedent for this among university faculty in other parts of the U.S.

Millhorn hopes to interest UC alumni in helping him recruit top scientists for the institute. His dream would be to obtain endowments for up to 10 professorships. For details, he can be reached at (513) 558-5636.

"Our commitment is to make this institute world class. Nothing less," Millhorn says. "And that's my job."

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UC Genome Research Institute (now Metabolic Diseases Institute)