Posted on Mar 21, 2005

Researchers from Union College, GE and Albany Medical Center believe they have what it takes to be designated the state's next Center of Excellence.

The reseachers are beginning to take an inventory of their resources, both in personnel and equipment, before putting a formal proposal before the Empire State Development Corp., the agency that oversees the program.

“The Center of Excellence is a proven model for driving research and economic development in New York,” said Bill Schwarz, Union's director of corporate and government relations. “It's a model we aspire to.”

Gov. George Pataki created the Centers of Excellence program in 2001, locating the first ones in Albany, Rochester and Buffalo.

The program was expected to use $230 million in state money during the first five years to leverage more than $700 million in combined federal, university and private funds.

Ron Jury, a spokesman for Empire State Development, said he was unaware of anyone ever submitting a proposal to become a Center of Excellence, and said there is no formal application process.

“We are always interested in talking with groups that are looking to create jobs, develop new research in emerging new fields and seeing how New York state can be helpful,” Jury said. “If they gave a proposal, we welcome the opportunity to talk with them.”

The researchers at the 2-year-old Neurosciences Advanced Imaging Research Center, located in a building behind Albany Med, have been trying to discover what leads to Alzheimer's disease and other neurological disorders.

Alzheimer's is a disorder that hampers a person's ability to carry out daily activities.

The 6,000-square-foot lab is equipped with a $3 million MRI machine, a very powerful scanner. Eight researchers, along with Union College students, have been studying the brain by scanning Alzheimer patients.

The center was recently approved by the National Institutes of Health to conduct clinical studies.

Earl Zimmerman, director of the center, wants to begin testing “normal” brains to determine what changes once a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer's. He wants to begin investigating the basis of memory and emotions to find early predictors of the disease.

Zimmerman also wants to expand the effort into a regional neuroscience program, teaming up with scientists from the Wadsworth Center and the state University at Albany, as well as recruiting outside scientists.

He said he needs several million dollars for additional equipment to make that happen. The tools will help attract top scientists.

The funding could come from a number of sources, including the Union College and Albany Med foundations, as well as other private and public sources.

But creating a Center of Excellence focused on neuroscience and Alzheimer's would help the region compete and collaborate with efforts taking place at Yale, Harvard and Penn State.

“If you look at the academic power of the Capital Region, we have as many people as any of these universities,” he said. “We want to be first-rate neuroscientists. In order to be first-rate neuroscientists you have to be able to do those approaches which are the cutting-edge of neuroscience. Once you have these resources, then you can play with the big boys.”

Nigel Skinner, business development manager at GE Global Research, said the proposal to create the Center of Excellence also would include partnering with researchers at the University of Rochester and SUNY Buffalo.

“What we're keen on doing is maximizing the synergy of what we call the I-90 corridor,” he said.

There are a number of neuroscience research efforts going on in the region to strengthen the case for a Center of Excellence, said Trudi Cholewinski, director of programs and services at the Alzheimer's Association of Northeastern New York.

Those efforts include work being done at Upstate Neurology, Neurological Associates of Albany, and Neurological Associates of Northeastern New York.

“I think in the Northeast we're pretty competitive,” she said.

Cholewinski said another reason for creating a Center of Excellence is the large number of people with some type of dementia, including Alzheimer's. There are 4 million Americans with Alzheimer's and 40,000 with some form of dementia in the 17-county region around Albany.

The neuroscience center has received some outside recognition. It is one of about 50 centers in the United States working under the Alzheimer's Disease Neuro Imaging Initiative, a five-year public-private partnership to discover early signs of Alzheimer's.

“The goal of the center is to try and cure Alzheimer's. To diagnose and treat and ultimately cure,” said Stephen Romero, co-director of Union College's neuroscience program, who is an adjunct at Albany Medical College and a researcher at the center. “That's the end point. We're a long way from that.”

Romero said the Center of Excellence designation would also help the center become one of only a handful of Alzheimer's disease research centers funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Union's Schwarz said the team of researchers is working on a white paper now to outline why the center should be designated the sixth Center of Excellence in the state.

The others focus on bioinformatics (Buffalo), high-resolution imaging and ultra-fast communications devices (Rochester), information technology (Long Island), environmental systems (Syracuse) and nanoelectronics (Albany).

“We're going to look at any and every funding entity to make this center as robust and as beneficial to New York state and the health care community as possible,” Schwarz said.