New biomedical research lab opens at Erie’s Penn State Behrend
No one ever suggested that the $26 million Magee Women’s Research Institute in Erie would grow overnight to its full potential.
But less than two years after plans were first announced, progress is being made, starting with six clinical studies that are underway at the temporary home of the research facility at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital in Erie.
More:$26 million medical research facility coming to Erie
A handful of employees have been hired, a procurement lab for collecting obstetric specimens has been established and a growing number of women are taking part in clinical studies.
Another big step came this past week when Penn State Behrend opened its second new laboratory in the Advanced Manufacturing and Innovation Center in Knowledge Park.
Open lab concept:Penn State Behrend officials open Advanced Manufacturing and Innovation Center
The new $750,000 facility — Behrend calls it a biomedical translational research lab — is described as a place where faculty researchers and students “will work with partners from the Magee-Women’s Research Institute of Erie to develop viable products, services and commercial start-ups.”
The gleaming new facility, equipped with a special positive airflow filtration system and bio-safety cabinets that prevent contamination, was unveiled late Thursday afternoon at a reception at Behrend’s AMIC building.
Student and faculty researchers were expected to begin work in the space on Friday.
More:Behrend to serve as research partner
“It’s kind of a game-changer for us,” Ivor Knight, associate dean for research and graduate studies at Behrend, said in an interview with the Erie Times-News. “It allows us to work with human cells, keep them alive and do advanced microscopy, looking at and understanding what is going on in these human cells.”
Opportunities for students will be extensive, he said.
“Students are at the core of what we do,” he said. “We have more than 100 students working full-time on campus on research. Some of those students will be working in that lab, beginning Friday.
Behrend Chancellor Ralph Ford, who welcomed guests into the laboratory space Thursday, thanked Mike Batchelor, soon-to-be-retired president of the Erie Community Foundation.
It was Batchelor who approached Pittsburgh-based Magee with the proposal to locate a research facility in Erie. The Erie Community Foundation subsequently invested $6 million in what’s expected to be a $26 million investment in the Erie facility.
“If you didn’t have the foresight, we wouldn’t be here today,” Ford said.
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In addition to the $6 million grant from the Community Foundation, $5 million each will be invested by UPMC, Penn State, Hamot Health Foundation and Magee Womens Research Institute and Foundation.
While Behrend signed on to be the commercialization partner for Magee, that doesn’t prevent the lab from working with other companies or organizations.
“The great thing about this lab is it’s in Knowledge Park in a building that allows us to work very closely with industry partners,” Knight said. “If there are others who want to get some proof of concept, they can take a space in this lab and work with the faculty.”
Knight said the creation of the Behrend lab and the progress at MWRI-Erie represent big steps forward for Erie, which a consultant hired two years ago by the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership identified as ideal for the development of life science activity.
According to that study, Erie is a good location for clinical research and development, pharmaceutical operations, medical device manufacturing, medical and diagnostic laboratories.
Halina Zyczynski, medical director of MWRI-Erie, said in an interview Thursday that she’s pleased with the progress of the Erie arm of MWRI, where six studies already are underway and where researchers have begun to collect and study birth-related medical samples, including blood and placenta tissue.
For Zyczynski, Erie represents much more than a chance to gather data.
It represents an opportunity to study a different group of women, including those who may have been affected by PCBs from manufacturing as well as rural women who have been exposed to fertilizers and farm chemicals.
Up until now, Magee has relied on information collected primarily in an inner-city environment.
“I now have access to a completely different community,” she said. “Included in that are women who choose to live in a rural setting and some who choose to make their living in agriculture.”
Whether study participants live in the city of Erie, suburbs or rural areas, “They get to take part in research, not just read about it,” she said. “We’ve never heard those voices before.”
Current clinical trials include research into preeclampsia and gestational hypertension, improving surgical outcomes after prolapse repair and a biobank on mesh complications.
Magee’s research efforts are embraced in Erie.
“The yield, or the number of people who participate, is much higher in Erie than it is in Pittsburgh,” Zyczynski said. “It’s been wonderful to see.”
Thursday and the opening of the Behrend lab represented another milestone for Zyczynski.
“It’s been less than two years,” she said. “We have found space, we have built it out, we have hired staff, we have launched six scientific studies and we are working with real women in Erie.”
But the community’s health isn’t the only issue MWRI is expected to address in Erie.
Behrend’s partnership with MWRI-Erie can “drive a new wave of economic development,” Ford said.
Original efforts predict the facility could eventually help create 200 jobs and bring $50 million in medical research funding to Erie over the next 10 years.