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February 22, 2007

Pitt says it's neutral on proposed Salk Legacy Fund

While the state’s other academic research institutions have announced their support for Gov. Edward G. Rendell’s expanded proposal to use Tobacco Settlement Fund money to stimulate biomedical research, Pitt has yet to jump on the bandwagon.

Dennis Yablonsky, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED), Calvin B. Johnson, secretary of the Department of Health, were in Pittsburgh Feb. 16 to promote the governor’s new Jonas Salk Legacy Fund proposal.

While Pitt has remained publicly neutral on the plan, citing insufficient information, Johnson and Yablonsky, in a press conference that featured players from local economic development, government and academic circles, touted the revamped proposal that Rendell presented earlier this month as part of his proposed 2007 budget.

“This initiative will generate 14,000 new high-paying, family-sustaining jobs, [and] the addition of 500 new world-class faculty members, including the formation of dozens of new promising young companies,” Yablonsky said, adding that the proposal also will stimulate $1.2 billion of new investment in the bioscience economy, generate 2.2 million square feet of new laboratory and research space and result in an increased share of NIH funding for research institutions.

“It will result in hundreds of millions of dollars of new venture capital available for investment in promising companies, and finally, most importantly, all of this leads to the acceleration of cures for disease,” Yablonsky said.

“This is an industry where competition for world-class faculty is key because those who get the faculty get the research monies and those who get the faculty are the ones that have the research facilities. So this is literally an industry where, if you build it, you can attract the people and attract the research and they will come,” he said.

The governor floated a similar Salk Legacy Fund idea as part of last year’s budget proposal, but the state legislature took no action on it.

The Salk Legacy Fund aims to boost biomedical research by diverting a portion of the state’s annual Tobacco Settlement Fund money to finance “starter kits” to lure new researchers to Pennsylvania and offer bricks and mortar financing to build, expand or remodel research facilities.

The fund would make up to $500 million available over the next two years to provide the starter kit and research infrastructure grants, which would need to be matched dollar-for-dollar by the applicants.

The fund would redirect about 9.5 percent of the state’s tobacco settlement money, taking $35 million per year for research. The new proposal adds an economic development aspect, earmarking $6.7 million for commercialization via the state’s three Life Science Greenhouses in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Harrisburg, and $6.7 million for venture capital to speed research into the marketplace.

Yablonsky emphasized that because Salk plan would be funded by floating a $500 million bond on a portion of the tobacco settlement funds and require matching funds from grant recipients, no tax or treasury dollars would be used to generate a $1 billion investment in Pennsylvania’s bioscience sector.

While Pitt publicly has not come out for or against the plan, the governor’s office said that the academic medical research centers at Penn State, the University of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson and UPMC have endorsed the plan. In addition, other research centers, including Allegheny-Singer Research Institute, Carnegie Mellon University and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, have expressed support.

Pitt, however, is reserving judgment.

“We’d like to see what the language is,” Charles F. McLaughlin, Pitt’s assistant director for commonwealth relations, told University Senate budget policies committee in a Feb. 9 briefing, noting that the University has remained publicly neutral on the issue because only a general description, but not the specifics, was available for review.

State DCED spokesman Kevin Ortiz said details were expected to be released shortly.

While representatives of the University were absent from the Feb. 16 parade of local supporters, others, including Tim McNulty, CMU’s director of economic development, and John Manzetti, CEO of Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse, spoke in favor of the proposal.

Touting both the medical and economic advantages, Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato said, “This fund could be key to a lot of life science, biosciences, tissue engineering and spin-off companies that will come from this technology and research that’s going to be performed in the universities and medical facilities we have,” Onorato said. “This is a critical and a key component of the continuing economic revitalization and continuing of the economic growth of southwestern Pennsylvania.”

University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute director Ronald Herberman said Salk funding could be helpful in the construction of a planned new research facility to be built near the existing Hillman Cancer Center. The building would add more than 200,000 square feet of laboratory space “to attract more of the best and brightest cancer researchers and biomedical scientists from around the world,” Herberman said. “The Jonas Salk Legacy funding would be extraordinarily helpful in getting this major construction project done.”

UPMC already has promised matching funds for any Salk grant, Herberman said. “We’re very appreciative of the very strong support from UPMC. If we can get the support from the Jonas Salk Legacy Fund, this will be a terrific add-on, which I’m sure would add major economic development. It also would be extraordinarily good for the University of Pittsburgh. Because the faculty who will be the scientists working in the laboratories will be part of the University, it would be a win for everyone.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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