What would it take to turn the Valley into the bioscience capital of the world? The Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust is banking that $50 million may just do the trick. The trust today announces an ambitious effort to lure 10 of the top minds in the world to Arizona to advance the revolutionary practice of personalized medicine, where treatment or prevention of disease is tailored to each person’s genetic makeup.
Already on the map with the Translational Genomics Research Institute, or TGen, bioscience research at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, and nationally known autism research, the Piper Initiative in Personalized Medical Science and Technology could launch Arizona into the big leagues.
"We’re looking for 10 of the absolute finest researchers in the world," said Judy Joley Mohraz, president and CEO of the Scottsdale-based Piper trust. "This has the potential of being absolutely transformational."
It couldn’t come at a better time, said Dr. Jeffrey Trent, president and scientific director of TGen. Federal research funding is flat, and the Valley is well-positioned to make the best of new talent.
"This is a fast-break opportunity," said Trent, who helped map the human genome at the National Institutes for Heath and has a penchant for sports metaphors. "There’s enormous pressure for what is a limited pool of federal funds."
The $50 million will establish up to 10 separate Piper Chairs, and the disbursement over five years will the be largest in the trust’s 10-year history.
Local institutions will be asked to provide permanent salaries and lab space for the Piper Chairs and their research staff, bringing the overall five-year investment to an estimated $100 million. These scientists would be a magnet for government and private sector research grants, Mohraz said.
"Do they want an internationally recognized person on their staff? You bet your life," she said. "These are people who are going to bring huge grants."
Trent is likely to be among a group of local scientists and physicians who will begin a global search next month to decide who gets a $5 million invitation to Arizona.
This collaboration might prove to be the biggest challenge, Mohraz said, as it requires the heads of the area’s most prestigious institutions to put the welfare of the state — and, indeed, the potential for enormous biomedical breakthroughs — above their own organizations.
Collaboration has been a key element in TGen’s threeyear history. The genomics institute has forged partnerships with ASU, UA, the Mayo Clinic and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, among others.
Teaming up with the Southwest Autism and Research Center in 2003, TGen researchers began comparing the genetic blueprints of autistic children and typical kids to find the genes responsible for the neurobiological disorder that now affects nearly one in 170 newborns. Autism center co-founder Denise Resnik said she hopes to have some results to announce this year from the four-year, $8 million project.
"(The center) has helped put a face on TGen so that the community understands how their work is affecting the world," said Resnik, whose son, Matthew, is autistic.
Arizona has a growing reputation in the biomedical field, Trent said, thanks to a flurry of activity in recent years, including funding through Proposition 301 of university research.
"This will add to the national buzz that there’s something going on in Arizona," he said.
The Valley and TGen basked in the national spotlight last month when two TGen interns won the country’s top high school science prize, earning $100,000 for Albert Shieh of Chaparral High School and Anne Lee of Phoenix Country Day School.
Bringing 10 of the brightest minds in personalized medicine to Arizona will increase pressure on schools to produce more students such as Shieh and Lee, Mohraz said, as biomedical firms demand a qualified high-tech work force.
The 10 Piper Chairs may be scientists, engineers or clinicians working in nanotechnology, biomedicine, advanced information technology or other fields. The key requirement is that they must work toward advancement in personalized medicine, and be the best at what they do.
Trent said their specialization may be less important than their bodies of work. Rather than choosing researchers based on their fields — such as autism or Alzheimer’s — he suggests choosing the "best athlete."
"We’ll build up that portfolio in the same way that the Diamondbacks or the Suns put together their teams," he said.