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EMORY | GEORGIA TECH | GRA EMORY | GRA EMORY | GRA EMORY | GRA EMORY | UGA | GRA EMORY | UGA | GT | GSU | GRA
EMORY | GEORGIA TECH | GRA
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by Holly Korschun
n the colorful, fanciful, ribbon-like strands that Xiaodong Cheng studies, the Emory biochemist seeks to understand the complex molecular functions at the core of human health and development. Cheng visualizes molecules from the outside in, using x-ray crystallography to create detailed, three-dimensional molecular models. He uses his models to study methylation -- a chemical reaction that marks molecules, including DNA and RNA, with enzymes called methyltransferase.
Like signs placed by a molecular road crew, these markings tell other molecules what path to take, how to develop, whether to communicate or remain silent. Whether a particular molecule is methylated can ultimately determine our normal development, our health, and our risk for illness.
Cheng would not be at Emory performing his groundbreaking research were it not for a partnership among universities, government, and industry known as the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA). Like the enzymes Cheng studies, the GRA fuels reactions that spark communication, expression, and development. The GRA brought Cheng to Emory several years ago as a GRA eminent scholar -- one of a brain trust of scientists at Georgia research institutions recruited with the aim of leading Georgia into a biotech future in which scientific discovery is expected to drive economic development.
The GRA is a nationally recognized model for using state funds, matched by universities, to make strategic investments in research universities. The goal is to increase economic development through biotechnology.
As director of the GRA, Mike Cassidy, like Cheng, is concerned with understanding the complex structures involved in scientific discovery at the six GRA universities (Emory, Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, Clark-Atlanta University, the Medical College of Georgia, and Georgia State University). He must identify research that holds promise for attracting additional research dollars, scholars, and businesses to Georgia. Like the catalyst in a chemical reaction, where communication is crucial and one process is precursor to many more, Cassidy urges collaboration and innovation, all leading to the GRA's ultimate goals -- more money for the state and its citizens, more scientists, greater innovation and discovery, improved health, and longer life.
Georgia earned high marks for economic development based on scientific research in a recent study by the Southern Growth Policies Board, a North Carolina-based research and policy group. Georgia's performance "validates significant and sustained initiatives such as the Georgia Research Alliance," the report said.
Since the GRA was founded in 1990, Georgia has moved to the forefront of growth in technology employment, more than tripling the number of technologies developed in university laboratories that reach the marketplace. The GRA has helped fuel the growth of industry by linking companies to state-of-the-art resources at Georgia research universities.
"The GRA has sustainability, with the longest track record of any public-private state partnership," says Cassidy. This is due to the involvement of both top-level leaders from corporate Georgia and university presidents. "Georgia also has one of the sharpest growth curves in new biotechnology," says Cassidy, "but early-stage capital is still needed. The good side of the economic downturn is that venture capital firms who would have invested in computer technology are now moving into biotech."
Many credit the GRA with being the catalyst for the numerous research connections between Tech and Emory over the past decade. Those include the joint MD/PhD program in biomedical engineering (BME), the joint BME department, the joint tissue engineering center, EmTech Biosciences (the biotechnology development center at Emory's Briarcliff Campus), and research collaborations in bioinformatics, genomics, and proteomics.
he eminent scholars program is the centerpiece of the GRA's investment strategy. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have noted the importance of the GRA approach to recruiting eminent scholars in attracting substantial federal and private research awards to Georgia. In fact, the $276 million in state funding invested through the GRA in the past 10 years has attracted nearly triple that amount in additional federal and private dollars. Research relationships between GRA universities and industry have increased 800% in that time.
As of this year, the GRA has supported more than 40 eminent scholars, including six at Emory (see pages 20-21), at the six GRA research universities. Endowment funds from the GRA for the scholars are matched by funds from the universities. The money is used to purchase equipment for the researchers' laboratories, and the scholars then attract additional federal research grants and recruit leading postdoctoral scientists and graduate students. Often the scholars develop patented technologies that lead to licenses with established companies or to start-up companies. Ideally, this snowballing effect attracts more top scholars, more research funds, and more business development to Georgia.
The GRA's eminent scholars program has been so successful that it has become the model for the distinguished scientists and clinicians program within the new Georgia Cancer Coalition (GCC). Over the next five years, the GRA will help the coalition recruit 150 scientists to blanket the state with promising cancer research. Emory and the Winship Cancer Institute were awarded seven of the initial group of 15 GCC scientists.
ike the ribboned structures of Cheng's proteins and enzymes, GRA scholars and research facilities are intertwined in their scientific collaborations and their ties to business. The eminent scholars conduct their research in GRA-supported facilities that are available to all scientists within the GRA universities. Almost every GRA-supported facility or program must involve at least two, and ideally more, GRA schools.
Xiaodong Cheng, for example, directs Emory's GRA-supported protein crystallography laboratory, which collaborates with UGA's biocrystallography laboratory, directed by eminent scholar B.C. Wang, and with x-ray crystallography facilities at Georgia Tech and Georgia State University.
X-ray crystallography is a complementary technology to nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR), which can be used to study molecules that are difficult or impossible to crystallize. The GRA supports Emory's NMR Research Center in the chemistry department, as well as the Cherry L. Emerson Center for Scientific Computation, which encourages collaboration in computational sciences with other institutions.
The GRA's commitment to scholars like BME chair Don Giddens illustrates how support and partnership can attract substantial additional funding. Soon after the BME department was created, the GRA was a key factor in the Whitaker Foundation's decision to give the joint department the foundation's first $16 million leadership development award, recognizing extraordinary opportunities for developing the biomedical engineering infrastructure at major research universities and US medical schools. "The commitment of an eminent scholar for the program underscores in our minds the exceptionally strong institutional and state support that exists," says foundation president Peter Katona.
The Whitaker Award was followed by a $25 million award to BME by the Coulter Foundation, a large part of which was earmarked for scientists and research initiatives with commercial potential. The foundation was particularly interested in projects that could be available to treat patients in two years.
The Center for Behavioral Neuroscience (CBN), an education, research, and tech transfer collaboration among eight Atlanta-area academic institutions and 65 scientists, is attracting major public and private research dollars. Led by Emory neuroscientist and former Yerkes director Tom Insel, the CBN was created by a $20 million grant - one of the largest grants ever from the National Science Foundation - as one of five neuroscience centers in the country. The GRA committed matching funds to the CBN that could lead to an additional $20 million in research grants.
"There is no other place in the world
where six research universities, two
of which are private, collaborate in a
research partnership and where six
university presidents are on that
partnership's board of trustees," says
GRA Director Mike Cassidy.
Photo by Gary Meek, Georgia Tech
s a partner in another collaborative research center, the GRA helped establish an industry partners program within the Georgia Tech/Emory Center for the Engineering of Living Tissues (GTEC), established through a National Science Foundation grant in 1998. GTEC scientists are developing tissues that can replace native tissues damaged by disease or injury or that can encourage new tissue growth.
The GRA also is a major supporter of EmTech Biosciences, the biotechnology incubator located on the Briarcliff Campus that is expected to provide the structure and support for new biotech companies based on Emory and Georgia Tech scientists' research.
The shining example of university research leading to a successful company with GRA support is AtheroGenics, the Atlanta pharmaceutical company originally founded by Emory cardiology researchers Russell Medford and Wayne Alexander to develop drugs to treat atherosclerosis. Funded with an initial $1 million seed grant from Alliance Technology Ventures, a venture capital firm that GRA helped create in Georgia, Atherogenics attracted $40 million in venture capital funding, developed a partnership with pharmaceutical giant Schering-Plough, and raised $40 million in an initial public offering of stock. The company is also working on drugs to treat cancer, arthritis, cystic fibrosis, and organ transplant rejection.
NuTec Sciences, an early entrant to the field of bioinformatics, relocated from Houston to Atlanta in 2000 with GRA's urging and is a leader in developing computer applications that analyze the overwhelming amounts of data available through genomics research. NuTec has exclusive licenses from the Department of Energy and the National Center for Human Genome Research for current and future software systems for bioinformatics applications in genomics and proteomics. NuTec is partnering with Emory's Winship Cancer Institute and IBM to develop GenesysSI -- a pharmacogenomics program that will use genetic profiling, clinical data, and nationwide cancer databases to design cancer treatments targeted to patients' particular types of cancer.
On an individual level, GRA's faculty research commercialization program helps medical school faculty members develop commercial products based on their laboratory research. This year's grants went to pharmacologists Stephen Traynelis and Raymond Dingledine to develop drugs to treat stroke and to endocrinologist Betty Villafuerte for her research on a gene-based treatment for diabetes.
uch GRA-Emory collaborations are among the many reasons to believe Mike Cassidy when he emphasizes that GRA is much more than just a checkbook for Georgia research universities.
"We are an investment strategy that serves as a catalyst for expanding cutting-edge collaborative research," he explains. "The GRA and Georgia's business community have developed a solid biotechnology infrastructure, and we are building a statewide network of advanced research facilities and increasing available venture capital. Most important, we are providing the opportunity for scientific discoveries to move rapidly from research to commercial applications." More information about Emory's partnership with the GRA is available at www.emory.edu/WHSC/HSNEWS/GRA. The GRA website is www.gra.org.
Copyright © Emory University, 2002. All Rights Reserved.
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