Question 4: Should Maine borrow $10 million to help fund cancer research?

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Every year in Maine, more than 8,000 people are diagnosed with cancer. About 3,000 of them die, making the disease the No. 1 killer of Mainers.

In November, Maine voters will decide whether to spend $10 million of taxpayer money to pay for research aimed at finding a cure for cancer. Many of those voters likely know and love victims of the disease, as supporters of the Question 4 bond question point out.

But some urge voters to think beyond the ballot question’s worthy goal to the health of the state’s bottom line. In light of formidable budget constraints — including a looming $70 million shortfall in the state university system — can Maine afford to borrow millions for medical research?

Question 4 asks voters if they favor a $10 million bond to build a research center “to discover genetic solutions for cancer and the diseases of aging, to promote job growth and private sector investment in this state, to attract and retain young professionals and make the state a a global leader in genomic medicine.”

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Unnamed in the question’s language is the direct beneficiary of those funds, The Jackson Laboratory. The lab has pledged to match the $10 million in bond funds with $11 million it raises itself.

JAX plans to use the money to build and equip a new facility at its Bar Harbor campus that would further its mission to better understand human disease through genetic research. At the 16,000-square-foot “Center for Biometric Analysis,” scientists could study the lab’s mice to detect and measure subtle changes in biology, down to the cellular level, with a degree of precision unattainable now, explained Michael Hyde, the lab’s vice president for external affairs and strategic partnerships.

JAX also plans to explore other diseases, including neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and ALS, he said.

“The primary focus will be on cancer, but there are genetic variations implicated in virtually every disease,” Hyde said.

Using high-powered measurement and imaging equipment, researchers could, for example, scan the genome of a mouse with high blood pressure and tease out the specific genetic variations associated with that condition, he said. Pinpointing the genetic roots of disease can ultimately speed the search for better treatments, he added.

“It’s cutting-edge science,” Hyde said. “We believe the facility that we would need built would be the most advanced in the world.”

While JAX has expanded its footprint beyond Maine — at research centers in Sacramento, California, and Farmington, Connecticut — the scientists and technicians needed to staff the new center work here, Hyde said.

“This is where our deep expertise in mouse genomics is lodged,” he said.

JAX has used state bond money to fund its projects before, most recently $4.7 million to build a new facility in 2008 that allows the lab to accept mice from other institutions without risk of contaminating its own mouse population. JAX leveraged that investment to boost revenues and bring more than $33 million in grants to the state, Hyde said.

The $4.7 million was awarded through a different process than the current bond question proposes. Six years ago, JAX applied for the money through the Maine Technology Asset Fund, a pool of money administered by the Maine Technology Institute.

To win MTAF funds, organizations must submit their plans for long-term capital projects to a review process. Experts from the American Association for the Advancement of Science assess each project’s merit while Maine experts examine the potential economic impact. Applicants must show how research resulting from their new projects would create Maine jobs.

But today MTAF funds are running low. Catherine Renault, who formerly served on MTI’s board and as an innovation and science adviser to Gov. John Baldacci, argues that leaves research organizations asking for state money without demonstrating the potential benefits to Maine.

“If all you want to do is add to the economy, then you can give grants directly to certain institutions, with no strings attached,” she told the Legislature’s budget committee in March. “However, if you want to do this, you should at least apply the basic rudiments of good government and expect something in return. You should expect that a certain number of jobs would be created. You should expect that the money would be repaid if the organization fails to create the jobs or if they leave the state.”

Renault’s testimony addressed the wider $73 million bond package going before voters in November, which also includes $10 million to replenish the Maine Technology Asset Fund.

Because of MTAF, JAX worked harder to find Maine companies to partner with as it pursued its previous projects, said Renault, who now has a consulting business in Brunswick.

“I can remember going to Jackson Lab in 2000 and the whole thing was a $10 million organization,” she said in an interview. “Now it’s dramatically bigger than that. I think our investments at JAX have paid off.”

According to Hyde, JAX’s impact on the Maine economy in 2013 totaled $380 million. With the addition of the new biometric center, the lab expects that to grow to $500 million by 2025.

The growth would come with 300 to 400 new jobs, including 30 to 50 employees who would work in the planned center, he said. JAX employs 1,300 people now.

“We have a long history of partnering with the state on capital projects, pulling them off on time, on budget, and delivering what we promised,” Hyde said.

With an annual budget of $262 million, JAX has the resources to tackle big capital projects. Its lucrative mouse sales division, which distributes 3 million rodents to researchers around the world each year, brought in more than $165 million in fiscal year 2013, according to the lab’s annual report.

JAX will contribute more than half the cost of the new biometrics center. But why can’t the lab pay for all of it?

“The laboratory has many, many, many demands on its funds,” Hyde said. “The primary reason for our [mouse sales] unit even existing is to provide the fundamental support for our research. We would not be able to execute our mission unless we had that service underway. It takes all of our capital availability to support the research and move current projects forward.”

The new facility is crucial to JAX’s ability to execute its plans for growth in Maine, Hyde said. A number of physicians, hospitals and charitable organizations support the effort, including the Maine Cancer Foundation, he said.

“A few places in the world, like The Jackson Laboratory, have the ability to probe the secrets of the genome and to turn that into treatments for cancer and other deadly diseases,” he said.

Editor’s note

This is one of a series of articles examining the bond questions that will appear on the Nov. 4 ballot in Maine. Question 4 reads:

Do you favor a $10,000,000 bond issue, to be awarded through a competitive process and to be matched by $11,000,000 in private and other funds, to build a research center and to discover genetic solutions for cancer and the diseases of aging, to promote job growth and private sector investment in this State, to attract and retain young professionals and make the state a global leader in genomic medicine?

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