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Jackson Lab Readies for Farmington Debut

JAX has already hired 158 people in Connecticut, and will expand to 300 in three years.

Jackson Laboratory is putting the finishing touches to its new facility in Farmington. The $100 million building opens for business next week, and the non-profit says there are already plans for further expansion. 

Jackson Laboratory began in Maine, expanded to Sacramento in California, and now has its third U.S. facility in Connecticut. 

Site Director Yu-Hui Rogers took reporters on a tour of the new building on the UConn Health Center Campus, reeling off the cutting edge research that will be taking place in these labs.

"We have been recruiting for cancer biology, immunology, stem cell research, genomic structure, human biome and infectious disease, and computational biology," Rogers said.

Credit Harriet Jones / WNPR
Site director Yu-Hui Rogers answers question from the media.

This will be a center for research into personalized genomic medicine, exploring ways that medical treatment can be tailored to patients’ individual genetic makeup to make it pinpoint effective. Jackson is bringing some big names in the world of science to Connecticut, including the center’s scientific director Charles Lee, who, it's rumored, could become a Nobel laureate when those prizes are announced next week.

Lee will be joined in Farmington by George Weinstock, one of the pioneers of the Human Genome Project, and by Jacques Banchereau, the leader for JAX's immunology research.

Rogers said that kind of expertise has a gravitational effect. "When they actually come, they serve as magnets," she said. "When you have these great scientists that reside here, all the bright young scientists want to come and work for them. That’s when you start building a large ecosystem of intelligent and great scientists, and innovative minds."

Jackson has already hired 158 people in Connecticut, currently spread around five different sites. They’ll all now be centered in the new building. The medium-term plan is to hire 300 within the next three years, but Rogers says Jackson won't stop there. "There's actually room for expansion, but we will have to build a second building," she told reporters. That might happen on this site within the next five to ten years. 

Credit Harriet Jones / WNPR
The wraps are still coming off the multi-million dollar facility.
Jackson Lab intends its Connecticut center to focus on clinical applications of its discoveries.

In the meantime, Jackson will be under close scrutiny. Hosting the lab in Connecticut is costing taxpayers about $300 million, something its critics say is too high a price to pay for the number of jobs created.

But Rogers said she has no doubt the lab will have a stimulating effect on the whole bioscience sector in the state. "We are very keen on collaboration with small startup biotech," she said. "In fact, we ourselves are interested in commercializing some of the discoveries and innovations that come out of this organization." She speaks of a new biotech corridor stretching from Farmington to New Haven.

Jackson is also exploring research and teaching partnerships with Yale and UConn, as well as reaching out to the state’s hospitals to work on applying its research to patients.

The organization intends its Connecticut center to focus on clinical applications of its discoveries. It has already signed partnerships with UConn's Health Center, with Hartford Hospital and with the Connecticut Children's Medical Center. "They have shown us nothing but great welcome, and are really, really keen to work with us," said Rogers. Work is underway to sequence the DNA isolated from tumors in cancer patients, so that treatments specific to the patient can be identified. 

The new surroundings for all of this work include both wet labs, where biological work is carried out, and dry labs, where data analysis takes place, arranged around central atrium and large auditorium. The four story, 183,000 square foot building is clad in zinc and limestone, and Jackson Labs says almost 90 percent of the building work was carried out by Connecticut contractors. It also has an eye to the environment, with a LEED Gold sustainability rating. 

Harriet Jones is Managing Editor for Connecticut Public Radio, overseeing the coverage of daily stories from our busy newsroom.

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