Carolina announces $245 million public-private investment in genomics

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chancellor James Moeser announced on February 22 a public-private investment in a campuswide genome sciences initiative representing at least $245 million over the next decade.

That commitment, which includes a $25 million anonymous gift, also announced on February 22, places UNC-Chapel Hill at the forefront of discovery in this rapidly emerging scientific field, Moeser said.

"We aim to do our part in leading this breathtaking revolution spurred by DNA and the book of life," he said. "Carolina will be a driving force in determining how the genomics revolution will change the way in which we treat human diseases, design drugs and grow crops."

University leaders, representing diverse academic areas, are making strategic support of the UNC genome sciences a top priority and are investing the resources necessary to position UNC for leadership among major research universities, Moeser said.

"This is a campus that encourages powerful and highly effective collaboration," he said. "At a large, decentralized research institution, it is rare to find this level of unwavering support for endeavors that cross so many disciplines."

Quick Progress in Building a Genomics Program

Equally strategic pursuit of state and federal funding, coupled with strong support from N.C. taxpayers and private donors, has further fortified such quick progress in building its genomics program, Moeser added. A few examples follow:

New buildings: Four new buildings that will house genomics research are supported in part by the historic bond referendum approved by N.C. voters in fall 2000. The Medical Biomolecular Research Building, a $64-million project, will receive $34 million in bond money and prior state appropriations; the Science Complex, estimated to be a $400-million-plus project, will receive $88 million in bond money toward its first two phases; the Bioinformatics Building, a $30-million project, will receive $2 million in bond money; and the Research and Teaching Building, a $39-million project, will receive $13 million in bond money. Portions of these buildings will be used for genomics and related research.

Campuswide strategic support: The university has committed more than $50 million in recurring funds for 40 new faculty positions associated with genomics, through carefully considered reallocation of existing funds or generation of new funds for this scientific initiative. This support also includes start-up costs and laboratory equipment.

The Michael Hooker Center for Proteomics: Moeser announced an anonymous $25 million gift to the School of Medicine that supports research in a promising area of specialization in genetics that catalogs the proteins expressed in cells -- crucial to the potential of the Human Genome Project. Dr. Michael Hooker, UNC chancellor from 1995 until his death in June 1999, was a strong advocate for science and technology initiatives at UNC. In 1999, an anonymous gift created a $1 million endowed professorship in biology with a focus in genomics to honor Hooker.

New federal appropriation: Moeser announced that the N.C. Congressional delegation, including Sen. Jesse Helms and Rep. David Price, had secured a new $2.25 million appropriation under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services budget (House Bill 12128) and approved by Congress last December. The appropriation will fund program and infrastructure support including laboratory equipment.

A Timely Initiative
Dr. Jeffrey Houpt, dean of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine, said the genome sciences initiative is especially timely, as scientists are making remarkable discoveries about the role of proteins in unraveling the mysteries of DNA and the human genome.

Genomics involves the study of the sequence of DNA, which is the genetic material of living organisms. Knowledge of genes and their role in human disease may ultimately prove instrumental in cures for a wide variety of diseases. Internationally renowned scientists, including Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and a UNC medical school graduate, announced on Feb. 12 the first "map" of the human genome.

"One of the major discoveries that came out of this recent announcement was just how instrumental the proteins are in the processes that keep the body healthy, as well as the factors that result in disease," Houpt said. "The fact that we already have received a $25 million gift devoted solely to the study of proteins brings an added sense of excitement to our genomics initiative."
UNC-Chapel Hill recruited Dr. Terry R. Magnuson from Case Western Reserve University as founding chairman of the department of genetics in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine in July 2000. Magnuson, one of the world's most renowned scientists in mammalian genetics, brought with him his entire 15-member laboratory group ­ and 10,000 mice for mouse genetics research.

In his first six months on the job, he hired seven of the top assistant professors in the field, including three from prestigious posts in England. He also organized the campuswide center for genome sciences, called the Carolina Center for Genome Sciences. Both the department of genetics and the center are in the School of Medicine but extend to other parts of the university.
The 40 new faculty members who will contribute to UNC's genomics initiative represent the five health sciences schools, dentistry, medicine, nursing, pharmacy and public health, as well as the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Information and Library Science and the School of Law. The College of Arts and Sciences will create five of these posts during the next five years for bioinformatics and genomics. The college will also contribute start-up funds.

An Investment in Patient Care, Disease Treatment
The UNC budget committee, the provost's strategic initiative and other university sources have allocated $7.3 million this year alone in start-up funds for genome sciences.

UNC received two prestigious grants in 1999, which added momentum to UNC's efforts to become a leader in genomics research. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute gave the School of Medicine $2.6 million, distributed over four years, to develop and staff a new genetics center. And the National Institutes of Health selected UNC as one of two Regional Mutant Mouse Resource Centers in the nation, a grant of $5 million over five years.
In addition, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center has invested more than $400,000 in UNC's genomics initiatives, including funds to help recruit Magnuson. Moeser said the university's efforts will benefit the state's economy, as research finds application in medical and business areas. And it will present opportunities to collaborate on research with other state campuses.

North Carolina voters played an important role in UNC's genomics "blueprint," approving November's bond referendum allocating $3.1 billion to UNC campuses and N.C. community colleges for repair, renovation and construction of classrooms, laboratories and other buildings, he said. Carolina's portion of the bond package is about $499 million.

"The people of North Carolina will reap the benefits of their trust and investment, as UNC's genomics research findings move from laboratories and ultimately translate into greater effectiveness in patient care and disease treatment," he said.

Four planned buildings that will be affiliated with genomics research are supported by a combination of bond money, prior state appropriations and campus sources including private gifts:
- The Medical Biomolecular Research Building, now under construction, will house the UNC department of genetics and the newly created Carolina Center for Genome Sciences. The center will complement existing research strengths at UNC in the study of mouse models of diseases, genetics of model organisms, cancer research and clinical genetics.
- The Bioinformatics Building, scheduled to begin construction soon, will house research and office space. Bioinformatics is a field that combines fields such as computer science, information and library sciences, and biology and other hard sciences to analyze the mass of data generated by the Human Genome Project.
- The Science Complex, a five-phase project, will include basic science departments. Portions of the complex will feature interdisciplinary scholarly activities related to genomics research. Undergraduate classrooms, teaching and research laboratories and a science theater will all be a part of the complex, whose construction date is scheduled to begin April 2003.
- The Research and Teaching Building, which is scheduled to begin construction later this year, is an addition to the School of Public Health. Research, classrooms and offices will be located in this addition.
Houpt said genomics will transform the field of modern medicine, and that the presence of one of the nation's top teaching hospitals, UNC Hospitals, on campus will enhance opportunities for collaboration to take research findings from the laboratory to the clinical setting -- and, ultimately, to patients.

Collaboration and Training for the Future
Magnuson said a teaching component is critical to UNC's promise of becoming a leader in this emerging science. UNC's department of genetics is establishing a human genetics minor and, in conjunction with the clinical departments, just accepted its first medical genetics resident.

"We have an obligation to train the next generations of medical researchers to fulfill the promise of this field, and our campuswide collaboration will ensure that these budding researchers have the breadth of knowledge that encourages discovery," Magnuson said.

The Carolina Center for Genome Sciences represents a collaboration among the schools of dentistry, information and library science, medicine, nursing, pharmacy and public health, as well as the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Law.
Magnuson has hired seven of the nation's top assistant professors in genomics since his July arrival. Among them are Dr. David Threadgill from Vanderbilt University; Dr. Fernando de Manuel de Villena de L'Epine from Temple University and the Fels Institute for Cancer Research; Dr. Charles Perou from Stanford University; Dr. Deborah Threadgill from Vanderbilt; Dr. Frank Conlon from the National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill, United Kingdom; and Dr. Larysa Halyna Pevny from the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom. Dr. Shawn Ahmed, who will begin work in April, is from the Medical Research Council in London.
Among the faculty whose appointments are outside the department of genetics but whose research will have key implications for genomics and genetics are the following: Dr. Jeffrey Dangl, John N. Couch professor in the department of biology; Dr. Patrick Flood, dean of the Dental Research Center; Dr. Alexander Tropsha, associate professor in the School of Pharmacy; Dr. Ed Davis, chairman of the department of biostatistics; Dr. Gary Marchioni, Boshamer professor in the School of Information and Library Sciences; Dr. Steve Downs, associate professor of pediatrics; Dr. Susan Lord, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and director of the Curriculum in Genetics and Molecular Biology; Dr. Larry Churchill, professor of social medicine; Dr. Richard Boucher Jr., Kenan professor of medicine; Dr. Shelton Earp, professor of medicine and pharmacology and director of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center; and Dr. Dianne Holditch-Davis, professor in the School of Nursing.

"It's a special environment here," said Magnuson, who also is Sarah Graham Kenan professor. "Our goal is to achieve interaction and coordination across campus. In the opportunity we have to integrate the basic sciences with health affairs, we are uniquely positioned for the challenge of the post-genome era, a time after scientists have determined the sequence of DNA and are looking to provide meaning to it."

Media Contacts: Deb Saine, (919) 962-8415, News Services; Karen Moon, (919) 962-8595, News Services; or Les Lang, School of Medicine, (919) 843-9687.