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Jackson Lab VP makes case for biotech in Conn.

By Lee Howard

Publication: The Day

Published June 22. 2013 4:00AM

Norwich - A top official at The Jackson Laboratory told a Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut gathering Friday that the research institute would be eager to form partnerships with pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer Inc. as it explores genetic-based drug therapies for a wide range of diseases.

"We'd love to talk to Pfizer - if you know anybody there," Michael E. Hyde, vice president for external affairs and strategic partnerships, joked in response to a question from an audience that included several Groton-based employees of the drug giant.

Hyde explained after his talk at the Courtyard by Marriott Norwich that Jackson Lab, which is currently building a multimillion-dollar research center in Farmington, often tests already developed drugs on mice to determine their effects on various types of tumors. But it would need to develop a partnership with a drug company such as Pfizer to begin testing novel treatments that turn on or off certain genes in an effort to slow down or stop deadly diseases.

Jackson Lab, he explained, does not currently have a strength in drug discovery. Instead, it focuses on figuring out ways to tailor medications to specific patients, especially those fighting cancer, in a new area known as "personalized medicine."

Hyde added that the state would gain a slice of any windfall Jackson Lab might gain from helping develop a new medicine.

"As time goes by, we're going to make the state of Connecticut proud," Hyde promised.

While the federal government is cutting back on basic research funding, he said, Connecticut is developing a name for itself for investing in biotech during a down cycle. Among Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's initiatives has been a proposed $200 million investment in biotech over the next decade as well as more than $1.6 billion in spending at the University of Connecticut to build new science facilities and boost biotechnology teaching and research.

"It's a bright spot in the world, believe me, and people know about it," Hyde said. "The world knows what's happening in Connecticut. This is big news."

Paul Pescatello, a board member of Connecticut United for Research Excellence and head of a coalition known as We Work for Health Connecticut, said Jackson Lab is part of an effort to make the state's economy more robust and vibrant.

"The recruitment of Jackson Lab to Connecticut is economic development at its best," Pescatello said.

Hyde said the average salary at Jackson Lab will be $115,000, with about half of recruits coming from out of state and half from in state. The nonprofit, which expects to employ about 300 in Farmington after its new facility opens in the fall of next year, will have about 120 Ph.D. scientists, 90 technicians and 90 support personnel when it is fully operational.

Though some have questioned Jackson Lab's ability to recruit top minds to come to Connecticut, Hyde said it has been far easier than convincing scientists to relocate to the research institute's headquarters in Bar Harbor, Maine.

"Try recruiting people to an island off the coast of Maine," he joked.

The lab, currently recruiting scientists from around the world to come to Connecticut, already has about 40 researchers in place, working out of temporary space. Hyde said the lab decided to build a new facility rather than renovate current lab space around Connecticut - including empty buildings at Pfizer in Groton - in an effort to attract top-notch talent and because reconfiguring old labs can be almost as costly as building anew.

l.howard@theday.com

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