Biotech on front burner

The formation of a Center for Integrated Biotechnology has moved to the front burner, and faculty researcher Michael Skinner not only is feeling the heat but stirring the pot.

Skinner, director of the Center for Reproductive Biology, was given the nod this summer to become the biotechnology center’s director and to work with faculty and administrators to move the project forward.

Development of such a center has been considered for about two years. The Board of Regents approved it as one of the university’s top priorities, as stated in its Strategic Plan. The plan included two goals directly related to this project, which state that WSU needs to: “create a Center for Biotechnology” and “establish a multi-million dollar, five-year campaign to support biotechnology-related research from federal, state and private sources.”

In the past four months, faculty and administrators across the university gave their input for a preliminary proposal. A refined “final proposal” was submitted Sept. 30 to the Faculty Senate for review.

Between now and December, Skinner will be joined by an implementation team and other interested faculty in laying the foundation for:

    o establishing several biotech research core laboratories
    o launching a website and newsletter for the center
    o initiating training and seminar programs
    o expanding contacts to business and industry

60% of research related
“Approximately 60 percent of the research currently conducted at WSU touches on biotechnology,” said Jim Petersen, interim vice provost for research. “It is an institutional strength. Further, a significant concentration of biotechnology industries currently exists in the state of Washington. And, substantial federal funding is becoming available, both in medical and nonmedical biotechnology. It is natural to build research on an existing strength in a way that will significantly benefit the industries in the state.”As a land-grant institution, Skinner says, WSU has been involved in biotechnology since its inception. During the past decade, however, researchers have been pursuing specific topics from many perspectives, and developing research centers, academic programs and degrees universitywide. Some examples of centers and programs established include:

    o Center for Reproductive Biology
    o Institute of Biological Chemistry
    o Center for Multiphase Environmental Research
    o Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory
    o Plant Biochemistry and Research Training Center
    o WSU NIH Protein Biotechnology Program
    o Bioresource Utilization Laboratory
    o Aquaculture Engineering Research Laboratory
    o School of Molecular Biosciences
    o Bioengineering Program
    o Bachelor, master and doctorate degrees in biotechnology

Defining the term
Biotechnology is a broad term that carries numerous and sometimes controversial connotations. When asked what WSU means by “biotechnology,” Skinner said, “If you ask the man on the street what it is, he will usually tell you that it has to do with molecular (DNA) and cellular biology and the development of therapeutics for the medical field. That is a part of it, but the university is looking at it in an academic, historic and almost global sense.

“Biotechnology has been around for thousands of years,” he notes. “Prehistoric man used fermentation to create wine, beer, bread and cheese. He also looked for seeds from healthier more robust plants to improve his crop yield.”

Skinner points to a history of major advancements related to biotechnology:

    o Gregor Mendel’s experiments in the 1860s with the hereditary traits of peas opened the door to cross-breeding, hybridization and genetics.
    o Eduard Buchner discovered in the 1890s that enzymes extracted from yeast were effective in converting sugar into alcohol.
    o Alexander Flemming discovered penicillin in 1928.

      br>WSU’s Center for Integrated Biotechnology will be looking at a broad spectrum of research topics — agriculture, genetics, veterinary medicine, microbiology, pharmacy and bioengineering. Petersen points out that this research will focus on topics like plant biochemistry, reproductive biology, environmental biotechnology, microbial genomes, uses of bacteria from extreme environments, development of replacement bone materials having genomic information, etc.

      “Faculty from disciplines that are not traditionally laboratory based will contribute to programs of the center,” said Robert Bates, provost. “For example, research may address such issues as bioethics.” Other scholary activities will include sociology, communications, economics and business.
      Skinner will be helped by an external advisory board of representatives from biotechnology-related companies and an internal steering committee with representatives from a wide spectrum of colleges — science, agriculture, veterinary medicine, engineering, pharmacy, and others.
      The center, Skinner said, ultimately will include approximately 200 faculty from colleges throughout the university, plus students and staff. More than 155 faculty have already indicated their interest in participating.

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