- Associated Press - Saturday, August 29, 2015

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) - Since its 1954 inception as a small research laboratory in out-of-the-way Great Falls, Montana, the McLaughlin Research Institute has grown to a highly respected biomedical research center whose scientists’ research has been cited as contributing to the work of two Nobel Prize winners for physiology or medicine.

At its peak in 2006, MRI had five lead scientists working under competitive National Institutes of Health grants on research involving degenerative nerve diseases at its futuristic-looking building in southcentral Great Falls. The grants helped support a $6.7 million operating budget and 50 employees.

However, after nearly a decade of budget cuts to federal programs - including the NIH, whose grants are crucial to medical research - McLaughlin has cut its operating budget and staff size by more than half. It now has three on-site lead scientists, an operating budget of $2.5 million and 20 employees.

Longtime director and researcher George Carlson and McLaughlin board chairman Randy Gray say MRI is preparing to launch a fundraising campaign for a new type of endowment fund that can help support the research institute more substantially each year while it adjusts to changes in federal and private funding.

AN UNUSUAL LOCALE, BUT HELPS COMMUNITY

Most major research labs are connected with big city hospitals or major universities, but McLaughlin is three hours away from the graduate programs at the University of Montana and Montana State University, said Carlson, who joined McLaughlin 27 years ago.

Carlson said McLaughlin Research Institute, which started in Great Falls as the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine under pathologist and part-time researcher Ernst Eichwald, blossomed under Eichwald’s steady work and that of his successors.

It received support initially from Montana Deaconess Hospital, which allowed Eichwald lab space, and later from the Sisters of Providence and contractor John L. McLaughlin, who paid for MRI’s first building.

When McLaughlin became an independent nonprofit and sought to construct a bigger building, it received bipartisan support from Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, who helped obtain $5 million in federal money, and Republican state Sen. Gene Thayer, who steered a $2 million earmark through the Montana Legislature.

“It’s never been the mission of McLaughlin to improve the economy of Great Falls; we’re a nonprofit whose mission is scientific research,” Carlson said. “But we’ve brought a lot of federal and philanthropic dollars to Great Falls to do our research.”

Altogether, the state provided $7 million since 1989 for the initial construction, a later upgrade and equipment, he said. In turn, Montana has received 10 or 12 times as much in new money coming into the state through federal and private grants and donations to MRI.

Community activist Gray, who joined McLaughlin’s board 10 years ago after a stint as Great Falls mayor, agreed MRI has boosted the local economy.

“However, McLaughlin Research Institute is not just a Great Falls resource, but a cutting-edge, world-class biological research center,” he said.

In addition, Gray said, “MRI has provided internship opportunities for hundreds of curious high school and college students who’ve gone onto careers in scientific research and medicine.”

Great Falls native Irv Weissman, the first of McLaughlin’s student interns and now a prominent Stanford University stem-cell biology and regenerative medicine researcher, is high on MRI’s future research prospects with scientific partners.

“McLaughlin Research Institute is positioned to unravel the secrets of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other degenerative nerve diseases,” said Weissman, chairman of MRI’s scientific advisory board.

MICE USED FOR CHANGING GOALS

For decades, founder Eichwald and partner and later successor Jack Stimpfling developed and studied genetically engineered mice considered a valuable research model for scientists studying the genetic traits of the human immune system. Temporary suppression of the immune system led to successful organ transplants.

George Snell, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1980, cited Stimpfling’s contributions.

Carlson, who joined McLaughlin in 1988, gradually switched MRI’s direction by using his expertise in mouse genetics to understand and model human neurological diseases. Stanley Prusiner, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1997 for discovering a class of infectious proteins called prions that cause fatal brain diseases, cited Carlson’s contributions.

PROS AND CONS OF SMALL-TOWN LOCATION

A Montana town like Great Falls is not to the liking of all the scientists McLaughlin has tried to recruit, Carlson said.

“Great Falls has museums and a symphony, but can’t compete culturally with a big city for folks who like to attend the opera,” he said. But MRI has recruited some scientists, including Carlson, who like to fly fish or enjoy other outdoor activities.

The good public school system in Great Falls has helped recruit scientific staff with young families, he added, but there are longer plane connections from Montana to big city science conferences.

On the plus side, McLaughlin Research Institute lacks the bureaucracy of a major university or hospital research center, Carlson said.

“Without having to teach a variety of subjects like a university research staff, we can be more nimble and focus our attention on Alzheimer’s and other related neurological disorders,” he said.

GRANT CHALLENGES

The biggest issue facing research labs of all types is the reduction in federal funding for NIH, since the grants help pay for research and support staff, Carlson said.

McLaughlin had relied almost exclusively on such NIH grants, but cuts in federal funding that began late in George W. Bush’s presidency got worse with the 2013 sequestration standoff between the Obama administration and Congress that led to further, automatic budget cuts.

In 2004, federal and some state and foundation grants accounted for 91 percent, or $4.8 million of MRI’s budget. But by 2015, the grant share of the budget fell to 36 percent or about $912,000 of the budget, McLaughlin financial and support officer Andrew Zimmerman said.

As recently as 10 or 15 years ago, federal NIH grants were available for the top 20 percent of research project proposals as judged by scientific peers, but grants have dropped to the top 5 percent now in some research areas, Carlson said.

In a 2014 interview, NIH director Francis Collins agreed that budget pressures were forcing the National Institutes of Health to reject half of worthwhile research proposals, putting scientific progress at risk and leading many of the USA’s brightest minds to consider careers overseas.

“While the scientific opportunities have never been more exciting than right now, the stress on the biomedical community in the United States has never been more severe,” Collins said in a USA Today interview. “Many young investigators are on the brink of giving up because of the difficulty of getting support.”

Carlson said McLaughlin had to cut its staff size from 50 to 20 over nine years. Two of its lead scientists who were unable to secure grants are now working elsewhere. Lead scientists remaining are Carlson, Deborah Cabin and Teresa Gunn. The combined payroll and benefits for the 20 employees now is about $1.3 million, a drop from $2.4 million in 2006.

“We’ve been fortunate not to have had to lay anybody off,” but rather not replacing most employees who’ve left, he said.

In response, Carlson said MRI is reaching out across the state and region for more philanthropic donations and moving into more clinically relevant research areas to help become more competitive in landing both grants and donations.

As an example, he said, McLaughlin is in the early stages of collaborating with Benefis Health System on the Center for Aging and Memory Care in the hopes that MRI’s research on Alzheimer’s can some day benefit residents in the hospital’s long-term care programs.

Gray said MRI also is doing research under contract for universities.

NEW FUNDRAISING CAMPAIGN PLANNED

McLaughlin Research Institute’s traditional endowment has grown to $2.6 million in recent years, generating an average of $85,000 a year to help pay for MRI’s research and support costs.

MRI officials say they’re grateful for that long-term support, but believe the institute now also needs a “term endowment,” or specific fund that can be spent down over a given period of time.

McLaughlin administrators and board members are planning a campaign to raise $3 million to $5 million to be spent over the next five to 10 years while MRI weathers the lower federal funding climate and adapts to more competitive philanthropic realities facing independent research, Carlson said. Such a term endowment fund could contribute $300,000 to $600,000 annually to MRI’s research and operations budget.

A main goal of the new fund would be to attract and support a new director, as McLaughlin has started a national search to replace the 68-year-old Carlson.

Gray said Carlson, a well-regarded scientific researcher and clear staff and community leader, has expressed interest in giving up administrative duties and remaining as a research scientist.

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Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com

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