Jackson Lab, UConn leaders see a genomic powerhouse in their collaboration at future research facility in Farmington

Storrs — Leaders from Jackson Laboratory and the University of Connecticut urged an auditorium packed with biologists and researchers Thursday to pair up and share ideas to build one of the most innovative genomics program in the country.

Jackson Laboratory CEO Edison Liu kicked off a two-day symposium on genomics by describing his vision of assembling teams quickly to use computational analysis, technologies and genomics systems research to address diseases.

“Together, we’re really, really big. If we can only work together, we can beat the pants off a lot of other places,” he said.

Jackson Laboratory, a Maine-based genetic research institute, is building a 173,000 square-foot facility next to the UConn Health Center in Farmington. The laboratory, built with the help of $291 million in state funding, is part of Connecticut’s bioscience initiative.

During the first day of the two-day symposium in Storrs, 45 researchers took the stage at the Student Union and gave 10-minute presentations of their work. An imposing Olympic-style digital timer was set up on stage to keep the scientists to the strict time limit. Some of the researchers jokingly likened the set-up to speed dating.

Symposium presentation

Jonathan Covault of the UConn Health Center talks about his research on the biological effects of alcohol on human neurons in vitro during the genomics symposium held by UConn and The Jackson Laboratory.

“This is our strength: our creative and intellectual capital,” UConn President Susan Herbst said in welcoming the group. “This is what will make the partnership with Jackson so successful. It’s the brainpower that we have here.”The research they presented was wide and deep, covering everything from how iron affects breast cancer to the genome sequence of an Australian kangaroo.

Liu said the initiative will focus on cancer, neurological and neurocognitive disorders, immune disorders, diabetes, genetic diseases and aging. He noted that the public demands a quick turnaround from lab to patients.

“If we don’t deliver on this, why should they continue to fund us?” he asked.

Liu hopes to build strategic partnerships with regional hospitals, insurance companies, biotech and pharmaceutical companies and other colleges in Connecticut.

In addition to collaborative research, leaders want to develop an Institute for Systems Genomics at UConn, a multidisciplinary effort that will involve eight schools and colleges at UConn along with the laboratory.

That institute would initially feature a small doctoral program for graduate students, but eventually could include some sort of program for undergraduates, said Marc LaLande, head of the UConn Stem Cell Working Group.

Liu encouraged his audience to think creatively. The graduate program, for example need not be structured in two semesters, but could include two-week sessions on special areas. Rather than one advisor, students could be advised by two mentors from different disciplines.

He also said he’d like to see students learn employable skills, such as speaking and writing, that would give them the tools to become, for example, legislators who could advocate for biological initiatives.