Breathing life into MU sciences

University hopes
to make the new facility a top base for research; critics say life sciences
emphasis would
minimize the
importance of
other research.
Sunday, April 4, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:26 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Forget that academic jargon you heard about life sciences being an interdisciplinary approach to improving food, health and the environment. The dean of MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources has the best definition: “It’s cool.”

Tom Payne is excited about the new inventions and discoveries life sciences research might bring — growing vaccines in plants, regenerating bones or curing cancer — that would improve the quality of life for creatures great and small.

“The things that life sciences will do and solve are going to drive our society,” said Jim Coleman, vice provost for research at MU.

MU thinks life sciences is so cool, in fact, that it’s putting its money, muscle and energy into making the campus a national leader. The school has declared life sciences a top priority and is focusing most of its research strength in areas related to food, health and the environment. And in the fall, the $60 million Life Sciences Center will open on Rollins Street.

Feeling some momentum, university officials have expressed optimism that MU — and consequently the state, which is promoting development of life sciences-related business and establishing an “I-70 biotech corridor” — will find a place in the national picture.

“Most of the country recognizes that this is the next revolution as an economic generator,” Payne said.

Life sciences is old term that has enjoyed a resurgence with the rise in genetics and biotechnology. The broad term — almost a buzz word these days in the mouths of legislators and educators — basically means research aiming to improve the quality of life.

For Payne, life sciences are everything related to life, from cells to people to ecosystems. For Coleman, life sciences are a set of problems related to food, health and the environment.

Depending on their field, researchers and officials add their own twists to the definition. Rose Porter, dean of the Sinclair School of Nursing, and Richard Oliver, dean of the School of Health Professions, focus on the practical aspects which will lead to improving the lives of Missourians and people across the world.

Mike Roberts, director of MU’s Life Sciences Center, said life sciences are a catchall. It’s like working on an elephant, he said: compared to the individual disciplines that study parts of the organism, life sciences allow a holistic approach — working on the elephant’s ears, trunk, big feet and all.

The new center is a dream come true for MU, which about five years ago made the development of life sciences on campus a strategic goal. The building will be home to scientists from various disciplines — exactly who has not been decided yet, Roberts said. He said many researchers, on and off campus, have expressed interest in basing their research there.

Coleman and others said MU is one of six universities in the country that has the schools of agriculture, engineering, medicine, health professions and veterinary medicine on one campus — all important to life sciences. If you add the nuclear research reactor, MU is one of a kind, said campus spokesman Christian Basi.

Critics say overemphasizing life sciences underemphasizes research in other areas. Coleman said it’s true that life sciences are a priority at MU but that other fields can find ways to tie in to the movement. “We’ve done a pretty good job engaging pretty much the whole campus,” he said.

Others have asked whether MU should put much energy in life sciences when there are so many strong competitors out there, Coleman said. He responds with a statement on the field’s breadth. “No one institution is going to be able to do all of it well,” he said.

Plant genomics, comparative medicine, nursing: all have been mentioned as MU’s major strengths and, as evidenced by how many research dollars they are awarded from the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, and the National Science Foundation, or NSF, are recognized among the top programs or research endeavors in the country. MU’s latest annual research report shows the university had the highest growth in NSF funding among public members of the Association of American Universities from 1994 to 2001.

Coleman said MU is trying to capitalize on its strengths as it tries to parlay for more ground in the life sciences field nationally. He added that the new center will help attract top-notch researchers — and their precious grant money.

“The Michael Jordans of science are hard to get,” Coleman said. “They need to have excellent facilities to work in. They need to have access to state-of-the-art equipment.”

Campus deans said MU already has science-Jordans playing on its team. For example, Randy Prather is one of the leading researchers in xenotransplantation, or animal to human transplantation. He is looking at ways to achieve successful transplants of organs from swines to humans. Swine organs are similar to human ones, but are liable to rejection.

Oliver at the School of Health Professions calls Marybeth Brown an “all-star life sciences researcher,” one who embodies the translational aspect of the field. Brown has been working with rats to test stamina and coordination, and has been able to translate her research to people. With a particular eye on older people, she is studying “prehabilitation”; that is, exercise before bedrest to maximize functions and strength before a period of complete inactivity — for example, hip replacement surgery.

“Most (older) people are so inactive they run the risk of functional loss, and that can lead to losing their independence,” Brown said.

What else is out there? Vaccines might be grown directly in plants, eliminating the need for pills or shots. Cell implants could help with the regeneration of bones. Plants could become immune to drought or insects.

“The information age is moving into the genetic age,” Payne said.

And it’s not just about cool research. It’s about economic development, jobs and money, say the deans of the life sciences schools.

According to a February report of the Missouri Department of Economic Development, life sciences-related business and research account for roughly 13 percent of the state’s econocompanies linked to life sciences my. Statewide, there are more than 2,000 — the broadness of the term seems to bolster that claim. In Boone County, more than 10,000 people (or about 10 percent of the county’s work force) are employed in life-sciences ventures.

Byron E. Hill, president of the Columbia-based ABC Laboratories, which does contract research for pharmaceutical, biotechnology and chemical companies, said that being affiliated with a top-tier life sciences university can only help his company.

“From our perspective, any additional prominence related to life science will give us more credibility with our sponsors,” Hill said.

Hill also said if MU develops a top life sciences program, some of the graduates from that program would likely stay near Columbia, either to work for life sciences companies in the area or to start their own small businesses. The life sciences deans said there are plans to develop interdisciplinary academic majors grounded in life sciences.

“Are we going to create the next Microsoft in Columbia?” Coleman asked. “We don’t know. But we are going to do something.”

The state economic development report said life sciences jobs pay about 24 percent more than the state average, and the numbers have grown stronger than the state average for the past three years. Coleman said that for every research dollar invested, there is a $1.80 return in economic impact for the state.

Can anything go wrong? Coleman said life sciences aren’t quite like the dot-com bubble, which burst because of over-investing in the information technology industry.

“We’re all going to get sick, and we’re all going to want to get cured,” he said. “We also all need to eat.”

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