Genetics Initiative on a Roll

November 18, 1999

Judith Zwolak

Louisiana may be on its way to becoming the next Silicon Valley or Research Triangle Park under a new partnership between Tulane, Louisiana State University, state and local government and private industry. The engine driving this partnership is genetics and gene therapy research-biomedical fields expected to boom in the next few decades.

Gene therapy involves replacing defective genes that cause certain diseases with good genes, a clinical technique with implications for such diseases as cancer, coronary heart disease, cystic fibrosis, hemophilia and AIDS.

To help Louisiana capitalize on its resources and expand genetic research and related product development, the state legislature voted this spring to provide $6.8 million in funding for a public- private organization called Louisiana Genetics Research Consortium. Tulane is part of the organization, which will work to expand genetic research in the state, foster business development based on this research, increase job opportunities and provide a forum for ethical discussion.

The idea for the consortium came after a yearlong study by the Gene Therapy Task Force, led by outgoing Tulane University Medical Center Chancellor John LaRosa and LSU Medical Center Chancellor Mervin Trail.

Other Tulane participants on the task force include Nicole Baute, assistant director of Tulane's Office of Technology Development; Krishna Fisher, director of research for Tulane's Gene Therapy Program; and Peter Gerone, director of the Tulane Regional Primate Research Center.

The task force--composed of 14 members of academia, business and government--concluded that Louisiana has unique resources to be a premier site for genetics and gene therapy research. "This isn't going to happen overnight," LaRosa said. "This is something that everyone has to be in for the long haul."

The state's investment in the consortium includes $300,000 for one year of operational costs and $6.5 million for planning and developing laboratory space. Baute, who also served as staff director of the task force, said the group stressed the need to involve the entire state in the plan.

"We have resources in Baton Rouge, Shreveport, New Orleans and all over the state that we need for this effort," she said. "While other regions are aiming to capitalize on genetic research, no other place is doing it this way--looking at the resources of their entire state," she adds.

To convince the legislature and the governor's office that the consortium was feasible and good business for Louisiana, the task force identified all agricultural, human and veterinary genetics research in the state. A statewide survey found 160 scientists involved in genetics-related research totaling more than $90 million in grant funding.

"We have a significant pool of scientific strength," Baute said. "If we put all of our life science and research and development experience together, we're right up there with Duke and Washington University. If we work together, we can compete for grants."

The task force found research activities occurring across the state, with major programs at the Tulane and LSU medical centers in New Orleans, primate centers at Tulane (Covington) and the University of Southwestern Louisiana (New Iberia), LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center and agriculture and veterinary schools in Baton Rouge.

Using a statistical analysis of life science research and development at these and other institutions, the task force found that Louisiana has the potential to create 60 start-up biotechnology companies, resulting in more than 100 new jobs a year. New jobs would also staunch the brain drain of life science graduate students who earn their advanced degrees in Louisiana and then leave for jobs in other parts of the country.

"Louisiana averages about 2,200 graduate students in the life sciences each year," Baute said. "Many are from Louisiana and have lifelong family ties here, but they can't find jobs right now in the state. The first step for the new consortium is to create an administrative body and develop laboratory space in New Orleans, where the majority of researchers are located. The infusion of state money should help attract additional private and federal support," Baute said.

"We have an awful lot of support from the governor's office to the legislature to the Chamber of Commerce to the Downtown Development District and all around the state," said LaRosa. "If Louisiana doesn't take full advantage of this, it's a terrible mistake. It really is an opportunity that is almost unique."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000