MMRI awarded $6 million state grant

UTICA — Masonic Medical Research Institute is getting a $6 million state grant to expand its research space and recruit more scientists, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Tuesday morning in Utica.

The money will go toward a project to renovate 5,500 square feet in the Bleecker Street facility’s basement and to recruit 25 to 30 new staff members. The project will increase research space by about 50 percent and significantly increase the current staff of 37.

It is the second part of a three-phase, $25 million effort to modernize the institute, formerly known as the Masonic Medical Research Laboratory, and transform it into an interdisciplinary, translational research facility.

“This has been a priority project,” Hochul said. “We’re not just attracting workers. We’re attracting scientists. We’re going to bring their capital and their intellect to this area. And you never know what spinoff businesses accrue when you start bringing the geniuses in an industry like cancer research to an area. This is what I’m so excited about.”

The announcement was part of Hochul’s presentation on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address and 2019-2020 state budget proposal at the State Office Building. The presentation touched on previously announced elements of the budget proposal, such as $22 million included for the Nexus Center, a tournament-based sports and recreation hub next to the Adirondack Bank Center.

“One of the most amazing things about moving into this community was something completely unexpected for me; (it) was the support from the state and the regional economic development council,” said Masonic Director of Research Maria Kontaridis, who started at the beginning of 2018.

The council previously had given the institute a $950,000 grant for renovations.

Kontaridis said the lab applied for a state grant several months ago, but she had not heard anything until the governor’s office called and asked her to be at Hochul’s speech on Tuesday.

“I was very excited to hear that we got the full $6 million that we requested,” she said.

Expanding research

While the state money will pay for construction, the project needs another $9 million to pay for staff recruitment and start-up expenses for labs for the scientists recruited, Kontaridis said.

The institute’s research has, in the past, focused primarily on the heart — especially heart rhythms. But under Kontaridis, it is diversifying into fields such as diabetes and obesity, autoimmune diseases, neurodegenerative diseases and cancer.

The renovated basement will include lab space for up to five more research scientists, whom Kontaridis refers to as faculty because she is modeling the institute after academic research centers. But the institute is focusing on recruiting the best scientists — not ones who fill a particular research niche.

“The thing we’re trying to get is the best possible people to do research in the Mohawk Valley,” Kontaridis said.

The renovated basement also will include a state-of-the-art procedural suite: A place to house large animals, such as pigs, sheep, goats and rabbits for research. Kontaridis said the animals will be cared for in a “very ethical” manner. First-phase renovations of the existing lab space included a vivarium to house mice.

The primary focus right now is on pigs — whose hearts are similar to human hearts — so that research started on mice can continue with pigs and then segue into clinical trials on people, Kontaridis said. She said those clinical trials will happen in the 2,500-square-foot space the institute plans to occupy in the planned downtown Mohawk Valley Health System hospital.

The basement — which actually opens on ground floor level in the back of the building — was used for storage, including all the equipment replaced in the first, $11 million round of renovations at the lab. But it has been cleared out and much of the equipment will be repurposed or given to area schools and organizations, Kontaridis said.

The lab currently has eight research faculty, also known as principal investigators, each with two to eight employees. Those employees include post-doctoral students, technicians, students and other scientific staff. The institute staff now totals 37, including 23 people recruited in the past year.

“We hope to double again within a year or two,” Kontaridis said.

Once the renovations are complete, the new hires will include four research faculty, their lab staffs, students and some administrative or support staff, she said. The work also will provide jobs for local contractors, she said.

While she thought that recruitment would limit her work at the institute and the quality of people she could hire, Kontaridis said people want to come to Utica.

“I have found that that’s actually been one of the easier parts of this job,” she said.