Hospitals

University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic tout partnership, then promptly get scolded by legislators

On the surface, the criticism stole some cheer from an event meant to promote the achievements of the university and Mayo’s seven-year-old research collaboration. But it also shows what happens when ambitious, well-meaning stabs at high-tech innovation run smack into unpleasant economic reality.

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — It was a bit awkward, to put it mildly.

Just as top officials with the Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics announced a major initiative to combat diabetes, something that will require lots of money, a few lawmakers promptly chided the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic for cutting money the state had given the partnership.

“I’m deeply disappointed,” said Rep. Kim Norton, a member of the House Committee on Higher Education and Workforce Development. “You’re making it very tough for us to get you funding. How can we get you money if you go along with the cuts?”

On the surface, the criticism stole some cheer from an event meant to promote the achievements of the university and Mayo’s seven-year-old research collaboration. But it also shows what happens when ambitious, well-meaning stabs at high-tech innovation run smack into unpleasant economic reality.

Founded in 2003, the Partnership was touted as “an economic development initiative that leverages the scientific base of the state’s two strongest health research leaders, Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota, to benefit all of Minnesota … [to create] a stronger economy — attracting new industry, creating quality jobs, bringing revenue from out of state, expanding the tax base, increasing the flow of federal research dollars into Minnesota and further enhancing the state as a destination for health care.”

The state provided the Partnership with millions of dollars, including support for a $25 million, three-story genomics research facility at a Mayo building in Rochester. For that kind of money, politicians expect to see immediate results. Yet the Partnership’s research projects — treatments for heart disease, pancreatic cancer, transplant rejection — take considerable time.

“The time lines are fairly long,” said Robert Rizza, Mayo’s executive dean of research. “The ultimate return on the Partnership’s investments is still out in the future.”

Nevertheless, the university and Mayo, which combine for about $1 billion in federal research money a year, need to demonstrate progress. So on the sixth floor Club Room of the university’s new football stadium Tuesday morning, Rizza trotted out three groups of researchers to update lawmakers on their projects.

Dr. Stephen Russell and Dr. Robert Kratzke are genetically modifying the measles virus to treat mesothelioma, a deadly lung disease. The Partnership formed Nisco, a start-up to commercialize their research. Human clinical trials begin in a few months.

Using bioinformatics, Dr. George Klee and Dr. Donald Connelly are trying to predict aggressive prostate cancer by identifying protein patterns in blood and tissue. The Partnership recently reached a research and development agreement with Genome Diagnostics Inc.

Sounds good. But long-term economic development doesn’t always mix well with billion-dollar budget deficits. Facing deep state cuts in 2008, the university cut nearly 40 percent from the Partnership’s annual $8 million budget. In response, Rep. Norton pushed a bill that required the school to consult with Mayo on any Partnership cuts.

Last year, the university cut $300,000 from the Partnership, this time with Mayo’s blessing, angering lawmakers who had fought to protect the money.

“We’re fighting for you,” Rep. Andy Welti told Rizzo and university medical school dean Frank Cerra. “You have to keep fighting for us.”

Cerra said the university has to make tough choices and set priorities. That’s true. However, the Partnership is also asking Minnesota for big bucks to fund a new diabetes initiative. Details are vague but the Partnership wants to pool the state’s resources into establishing Minnesota as the premiere hub for diabetes care.

The Partnership is already working with Exsulin Corp. to identify disease biomarkers. The Burnsville-based company and Mayo recently started a human clinical trial on a Type 2 diabetes drug. The university’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine is developing ways to grow insulin-producing cells.

“I think we have the ability to make Minnesota the place to go if you have diabetes,” Cerra said.

Cerra envisions three parts to the initiative: conducting research, helping local patients to better comply with treatment and finding ways to collaborate with companies to commercialize technologies. The Partnership is establishing an independent oversight committee chaired by Nobel laureate Dr. Peter Agre.

All of this will require “a substantial sum of money,” probably millions of dollars, Norton said.

But if the university and Mayo continue to pare the Partnership’s budget, supporters like Norton might not be in such a giving mood.