Thursday, February 13, 2003

Maine Med researchers delve into life

Published in the Current

The Maine Medical Center Research Institute in Scarborough is the site of world-class, groundbreaking medical research on a par with the Mayo Clinic and the Scripps Research Institute.

The building’s spiral staircase evokes the concept of DNA, and a poster in a lab tells scientists that research mice have saved more people than firefighters.

MMCRI permits Maine Med to function as a teaching hospital, said Dr. Ken Ault, MMCRI’s director.

Normally those types of hospitals are right next to a medical school, with clinical work and basic scientific research complementing each other. Maine Med doesn’t have a med school nearby, and is only affiliated with the University of Vermont medical school in Burlington.

“The main reason we’re here is to provide the academic environment that otherwise is missing,” Ault said. MMCRI is one of only about 20 research institutes around the country not affiliated with a medical school. “It’s fairly unusual,” he said.

For the first 10 years, the institute was funded almost entirely by the hospital and did the research needed by medical professionals caring for patients.

Six years ago, though, the institute decided to focus its efforts, to be more effective in its research and to respond to the increasingly competitive biomedical world. It committed to building the structure that is now tucked away on the Maine Med campus in Scarborough, and getting “on the map” of biomedical research, Ault said.

The effort has succeeded, with world-class scientists at MMCRI looking into four wide sectors of medical subjects: cardiology and blood vessel formation; molecular biology, including work using adult stem cells; applying academic research to clinical practice; and clinical trials of procedures or drugs in the FDA approval process.

Some of the things they are learning about include how cancer cells are able to attract blood vessels to help them grow and, correspondingly, how doctors may be able to shut off blood flow to tumors. They also are looking at how cells organize themselves into an organism, which could permit scientists to develop genetic treatments for certain conditions.

Doctors are also looking into the question, “how do we practice medicine?” Ault said. They study how different doctors treat similar conditions and compare the results of each treatment to determine the most clinically effective way of helping people get healthy.

“That’s a big area of research,” Ault said. It can show doctors not only how well and how quickly patients recover, but also how to keep costs down, by determining what procedures work best for different patients. Two clinical studies include work on early intervention for patients bordering on psychosis and how dialysis affects patients over the long term.

The institute attracts research grants from the National Institutes of Health, non-profits like the American Heart Association and pharmaceutical companies, among others, Ault said.

He is looking to expand the institute, but not too much. He wants to get more doctors involved in clinical trials and to add on more basic science as well.

There are 13 graduate students from the University of Maine who are doing work at MMCRI, as part of a program with UMaine and the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor.

Students are taught to do biomedical research as part of their courses of study.

They get to use state-of-the-art equipment, including machines that can build molecules of specific types or ones that can tear apart molecules and tell scientists how they are constructed.

And they interact with people in clinical trials, the ones Ault calls “heroes,” making sacrifices of themselves to help researchers better understand medicine.

“It’s not for you, it’s for the greater good,” he said.