Northern Arizona University forms new alliance for bioresearch and education

June 17, 2005

By hammersmith

This spring, the Arizona Board of Regents approved the creation of a new bioresearch institute at Northern Arizona University, the Strategic Alliance for Bioscience Research and Education, or SABRE. NAU faculty have been working to build SABRE for several years in order to promote Arizona’s push for a biosciences sector. Both Arizona State University and the University of Arizona have also devoted considerable resources to strengthening their existing biosciences programs and building new ones to address Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap.

SABRE first came about two and a half years ago as an ad hoc group of faculty from a range of scientific disciplines and members of the Greater Flagstaff Economic Council, said Tim Porter, a member of the SABRE steering committee and chair of the physics and astronomy department at NAU. Eager to balance the flurry of bioscience-related activity in the central and southern regions of the state, the alliance (formerly called the Institute of Integrative Biotechnology Research and Education) initially convened to address the recommendations laid out in the Roadmap, first issued in 2002 by Battelle.

“The ultimate goal of the program is economic development in Northern Arizona that benefits students, NAU, and the local Northern economies,” Porter said. By establishing “a small, permanent local infrastructure” of players in the academic and business community, SABRE members hope to bring the right people together around the same table of translational research. The organization currently has 60 members, including NAU professors, administrators, economic development officials, community business leaders, and government representatives.

“One of our goals is to be inclusive,” said SABRE Director Richard Coast. “We want this organization to go beyond the campus borders.”

SABRE will focus on the research and economic strengths unique to the region, which the Roadmap identified as bioengineering, cancer research, infectious diseases, diabetes, and neuroscience, areas that intentionally overlap to foster interuniversity cooperation and partnering.

Porter acknowledged that the group will be necessarily smaller in scope than the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, or the BIO5 collaborative at University of Arizona, but says that SABRE is similar to those two organizations in important ways, namely in its strategic adherence to the Roadmap, and its role as a “clearinghouse” for the fast-paced bioscience and economic-development projects going on throughout Arizona.

“We recognize that this form of high-payoff economic development and education is sometimes a slow, grinding process,” Porter said, but he added that the Roadmap sets out a doable framework on which to build research and investment strategies.

SABRE is funded under the auspices of the state’s Technology and Research Initiative, which was approved by Arizona voters in Proposition 301 in 2000. Its affiliated faculty members carry nearly $2 million in outside grants.

What will be the measure of the coalition’s success? Porter said that the group’s long-term goal is to cultivate from the ground-up new businesses in Flagstaff whose focus is translational research and education. “That is really the ultimate goal, because it would serve all involved,” he said.

In addition, Porter added that SABRE hopes to bolster the number of biosciences and biomedical students at NAU, of which there are currently 2,700, attract more research grants, and broaden the intellectual property base at the university.

As a physicist and astronomer by trade, Porter said that though Arizona may seem to be privileging the biosciences over other academic fields lately, the term “life sciences” itself means something radically different than it did even five years ago.

“It is now common for front-line ‘life science’ research to rely on physical chemistry, materials science and engineering, mathematics and statistics, or even quantum mechanics to investigate the field’s fundamental questions and problems,” Porter said. And it is this relative recent multi-disciplinary collaboration that is so exciting for researchers both inside and beyond the traditional life sciences umbrella.