State Evaluates Gene Therapy Research

July 1, 1998

Judith Zwolak

Oil, tourism, sugar cane.... Soon Louisiana may add biogenetic research and related product development to its list of top money-making industries, with the Tulane and Louisiana State University medical centers as the cornerstones of this new enterprise.

This spring, the Louisiana Legislature passed a measure to organize a task force that will study the feasibility of forming a statewide program to foster research and business development in the area of gene therapy. Researchers in this fledgling biomedical field hope to one day replace the defective genes that cause certain diseases with good genes.

Gene therapy could eventually help treat such diseases as cancer, coronary heart disease, cystic fibrosis, hemophilia and AIDS. Tulane and LSU are sponsoring the task force's study of the economic possibilities offered by activities related to gene therapy, which has long been an aspect of Tulane Medical Center's strategic plan.

In fact, the Senate bill to form a task force was co-sponsored by Sen. Donald Hines of Bunkie, La., after he attended a joint meeting of the legislature's Health and Welfare Committees at Tulane and saw a presentation on gene therapy.

"I thought this would be a great opportunity to combine the resources of Tulane and LSU and all the talent we have in the state to promote gene therapy research and the development of high-tech jobs," says Hines, who is also a physician.

The task force will begin meeting this month to examine the state's strengths in biomedical research and evaluate the formation of a public-private-academic partnership to develop a gene therapy research center.

"This has enormous economic implications for the state in terms of developing essentially a new industry," says John LaRosa, chancellor of Tulane's medical center. "It would be irresponsible for Tulane not to plan to be in this. This would be like letting Silicon Valley go to New York."

LaRosa says Tulane can bring to a statewide center resources such as one of the most successful technology-transfer programs in the country, which moves academic laboratory research into the marketplace, as well as the world's largest primate research center in Covington.

Research on primates is particularly important in this field because of their genetic proximity to humans, he adds. Smaller animals such as rats and rabbits are not genetically similar enough to humans to provide useful information. Another benefit is the concentration of scientists at Tulane and LSU who are working on research in this area, LaRosa says.

To make research at both universities attractive to funding sources, however, the two medical centers will have to join forces.

"There are finite resources devoted to this, and if we want to be in a position to compete for them we have to start right now to be competitive," he says. "We can't afford the diversion of fighting among ourselves."

Supporters of a gene therapy research center liken this public-private-academic partnership to that of Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, which was created in 1959 and is now home to 98 companies and non-profit organizations. A gene therapy center in Louisiana would likely be located in New Orleans because of the high concentration of researchers and the proximity of the primate center, Larosa says.

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