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Genomics partnership makes the case for continued funding

ST. PAUL — With the specter of budget cuts looming, representatives of the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic’s genomics partnership made the case to lawmakers on Tuesday as to why the partnership is worth funding.

The Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics was founded in 2003 with the goal of uniting two of the state’s premiere medical research institutions. It became a first of its kind partnership in the nation.

"We realized that to really make a difference, this isn’t something that the University of Minnesota or Mayo Clinic could do individually and that the two of us working together were very powerful," said University of Minnesota Medical School Executive Vice Dean Mark Paller.

Since its inception, the partnership has conducted 54 research projects, attracted more than $80 million in National Institutes of Health funding and created or sustained between 2,400 to 5,700 jobs. Based on that research, six patents have been filed and one start-up company has been established, with another company in the works.

But while the partnership enjoyed robust state funding in the beginning, state money for the project has dwindled in recent years. With the state facing a projected $5 billion budget deficit, avoiding deeper cuts will likely be a challenge. Dr. Eric Wieben, Mayo Clinic leader for the partnership, avoided talking about the funding cuts during his presentation to the House Higher Education Policy and Finance Committee. But after the meeting he said the clinic is deeply concerned about possible cuts.

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"It’s becoming a real challenge to try to handle the consequences of these budget cuts and still meet our mission and live up to the potential within us," he said.

The partnership had expected to receive $8 million per year from the state to support its work. But as part of last year’s budget deal, that funding was cut by nearly $1.2 million over two years. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget proposal would cut an additional $838,000 over two years in addition to continuing the cut approved last year. A Republican first phase budget proposal ultimately vetoed by the governor would have continued the nearly $1.2 million in cuts.

These cuts come as the partnership has announced an ambitious goal to cure diabetes within 10 years. Called the "Decade of Discovery," the project would require an estimated $250 million to develop a cure and bring it to market. The partnership seeks to raise that money from a variety of sources but had hoped to get additional funding from the state.

"We’re at the point where we think it’s important to try and expand the partnership activities to really capitalize on the momentum that we have at this point, and instead we are finding ourselves trying to find new ways to cut, modify and restrict our activities," Wieben said.

Rep. Mike Benson, R-Rochester, said he is deeply concerned about the state cutting funding for the genomics partnership because of its economic development potential. He said he is considering a bill to preserve the partnership’s funding.

Benson added, "It’s important. I think we need to step up as a Legislature even at a tough time and say, "This produces jobs.’"

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