by: Arlene Weintraub
New York is home to several organizations that are uniting the city’s disparate academic institutions in pursuit of common goals. This month will mark the opening of the New York Genome Center, an effort among 11 colleges to collaborate on genomics research. In November, the New York eHealth Collaborative held its first conference, which was designed to bring together top players in the field of health IT. And just yesterday, the Academy for Medical Development and Collaboration (AMDeC) rolled out a set of enhancements to its year-old online registry—the only resource in the region that provides real-time access to technology and resources for biomedical researchers around the city who want to work together.
Maria Mitchell is the president of AMDeC, a 14-year-old consortium of nearly 20 medical research institutions, including Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and Weill Cornell Medical College. The group’s online registry is called FIRST (for Facilities Instrumentation Resources Technologies), and, says Mitchell, it’s one of the biggest undertakings AMDeC has ever tackled.
Mitchell sat down recently with Xconomy to chat about the state of academic research in NYC, and how her group is fostering collaboration among far-flung and often competitive institutions.
Xconomy: How did AMDeC’s mission evolve over the years?
Maria Mitchell: One of the original goals of AMDeC was to create a venture capital fund that would help commercialize technologies from the institutions. But every investor said, “We have no interest in investing in a bunch of institutions that have no history of working together.” That pushed us toward the collaboration side of things. That’s really what we focused on: raising money and creating an incentive for folks to work together on big science projects.
The first thing we did was something called the New York Cancer Project. We recruited over 18,000 ethnically diverse New Yorkers into a study to look at the gene-environment interaction in cancer and other major diseases. Each of the participants gave an hour-and-a-half, face-to-face interview. We have the medical informatics—their background, their history—stored at Columbia, and their DNA is in a bio-repository at Rutgers. It was very successful. There have been over 30 major scientific publications using that database. It’s still being used.
We also have a project on reducing diabetes and obesity in kids. We’re in five middle schools with five different ethnic populations to look at the genetic predisposition to type 2 diabetes and obesity. There are about 1,000 kids in that study. It’s in the fourth year of a five-year study and there’s already been three major publications out of that. We’re looking at expanding that.
X: Where did the idea for FIRST originate?
MM: We had always done some sort of price negotiation for our members, for reagents and so forth. We had also done a deal with Affymetrix to get 80 percent discounts [on genomic analysis tools]. Those efforts were well-received in the institutions. Two years ago our scientific advisory committee looked at savings from two companies and said, “If we’re doing so well here why don’t we do more of this?” We developed an infrastructure in 2010 to create a program called Vendor Partnership, where we work with vendors who contract with us and sign on to give our members special discounts.
From there, our idea was to undertake a major survey of all the core services and technologies at all of the AMDeC member institutions, and put them into a format that was useful for finding whatever service you need.
X: So how does it work?
MM: It’s an online real-time wiki-based registry of all of the core services and technologies. There are nearly 100 core labs across 18 or 19 institutions, and over 700 services and instruments on the site. It includes fairly detailed information about the services that are available, whether or not they’re available to outsiders, and contact information.
We’re in the process of launching two upgrades. One is a concierge, which helps the user get much more quickly directed to where they want to go, without having to scroll through a lot of information. The second component we added to it is a best-buy comparison. So if you check off five different labs that you think provide around the same service, it will come up with a chart comparing what they have and what they don’t have so you can better choose the lab.
We’ve been talking to a number of software companies and investors to create an e-commerce business, so that not only can institutions buy and sell from each other, but industry can buy from our institutions. That’s what we’re moving towards.
X: What other advantages does this sort of collaboration offer to New York institutions?
MM: It’s extremely useful to the institutions to be able to see what other folks are offering. As an example, one of our members that you wouldn’t think about is the Museum of Natural History. They’ve been working on the strategic plan and really upgrading their instrumentation. Now with FIRST, they believe they don’t have to purchase as much as they normally would purchase, because they can share and use what’s at other institutions. It serves smaller institutions that don’t have the same major equipment.
There’s also a requirement in every NIH grant that you have to demonstrate collaboration. They can pull a page right off of FIRST to show how they’re collaborating with various institutions. So it helps in attaining grants.
When we came out with FIRST, we showed it to the City of New York and they were kind of awestruck. A lot of different groups had been asking for someone to do this. I guess a lot of folks had tried and failed.
X: What are some of your goals for the future in terms of fostering collaboration among New York researchers?
MM: Our efforts really are about creating savings and revenue for our member institutions, as well as for AMDeC, so we can put money back into research efforts. These institutions are much more concerned now about how resources are distributed, what comes in the door, what goes out the door. Places that would have never focus thought about how much they spend on pipettes consider it a very big deal now. Research purchasing is where hospital purchasing was 30 years ago—there has to be tens of millions of dollars that could be saved. I think it can be extremely exciting for the institutions.
Arlene Weintraub is the editor of Xconomy New York. She can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @awjourn.