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Lieber Institute expanding at Johns Hopkins research park

Slices from thousands of brains fill nearly a dozen freezers set to 112 degrees below zero on the top floor of a research building at the Johns Hopkins Science + Technology Park.

Inside those slices might be the secrets to schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. On a recent morning, researchers with the Lieber Institute for Brain Development performed dissections of the amygdala, an almond-shaped mass of neurons thought to play a key role in such diseases.

Three years after local officials made a $5.6 million bet to lure the Lieber Institute to the research park, the privately endowed nonprofit has surpassed job growth goals and is expanding. The institute recently leased another 13,000 square feet in the John G. Rangos Sr. Building, growing its space by half, and plans to hire 15 to 20 more scientists to fill it, bringing its staff to nearly 100.

That growth could help spur additional construction at the research park, which has faced delays during the economic slowdown and resistance from the surrounding neighborhood. Community members and officials protesting the redevelopment project have criticized the lack of construction jobs for area workers and opportunities for displaced residents. The nonprofit leading the redevelopment has said it was working to address their concerns.

Developers had received other interest for the space Lieber is absorbing, and with the Rangos building nearly full, are seeking a lead tenant to justify construction of a second commercial laboratory building, where they could lure more research.

Dr. Thomas Hyde, Lieber's chief operating officer, said the institute's expansion would help researchers learn more about schizophrenia — and, eventually, treat it more effectively or cure it.

"Current treatments reduce the symptoms, but they don't restore functionality," said Hyde. He said he spends at least half an hour each day performing those brain dissections. Researchers at the institute also work with a collection of stem cells and study brain activity in rats or mice.

About 1 percent of the U.S. population suffers from schizophrenia, a mental illness that most commonly appears in men around the age of 20, who can begin hearing voices, experiencing paranoid fears or becoming withdrawn or agitated. Doctors typically prescribe antipsychotic medications and other treatments to help patients manage the disease and cope with symptoms.

But even with treatment, schizophrenia patients often have difficulty leading independent lives. The two couples that founded Lieber know the challenges — both Stephen and Connie Lieber and Milton and Tamar Matz had children with schizophrenia. The Liebers provided a $100 million gift to establish the institute in 2010; the Matz family added $20 million.

The endowment spurred a nationwide competition to lure the research center; developers of the Hopkins research park vied against rivals at institutions including Harvard, Stanford and Columbia.

The pitch included a call from Gov. Martin O'Malley and a pool of financial incentives including a $2 million loan from the state, a $300,000 loan from the city, a $3 million grant from research park developer Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership and $305,000 in grants from the Abell Foundation.

It was a combination of that effort, as well as the opportunity to build and later expand in the Rangos building, that attracted the institute to Baltimore, according to Hyde.

Abell Foundation CEO Robert Embry called it "a great coup for the city."

Scott Levitan, a senior vice president with Forest City, said the institute's decision "was really validation for the concept" of the research park.

"It really provided a shot in the arm for a commercialization center next to Johns Hopkins Medicine," he said.

The institute moved into its 25,000-square-foot custom-built space in 2011. The facility includes a chemistry lab in which researchers are working to find compounds that could eventually form drugs to treat mental illness. In June, the institue announced a partnership with Belgian drug maker UCB to identify drug candidates, and has relationships with several others that officials declined to name.

Elsewhere in the lab, researchers implant rodents with electrodes that help show the effects of psychotic drugs on brain activity. The brain dissections, meanwhile, provide scientists with DNA, RNA and proteins from the brains of people who suffered from mental illness and those who did not.

Most of the 13,000 square feet the institute is adding is to be dedicated to more lab space. Institute officials are in the process of planning it out, with a goal of opening it for research next year.

Other Rangos building tenants are also expanding. SoBran Inc., a lab that provides contract research services using animal testing, is adding space to take up about 13,000 square feet, Levitan said, bringing the 280,000-square-foot building to 92 percent occupancy.

Lieber's growth was driven partly by other interest in the space. Forest City had kept the space adjacent to Lieber's lab open as long as possible while other tenants, including BioMarker Strategies Inc. and Siemens Medical, moved in.

When another company expressed interest in the space, the developers checked with Lieber before leasing it — and Lieber officials said they were ready to expand.

The next research building is planned for Rutland and Ashland avenues. Developers hope to complete it in 2015, though that depends on securing an anchor tenant, Levitan said.

Lieber's Hyde said he hopes the presence of the lab, which brings in scientists from around the world for collaboration, helps boost the research park and the region's high-tech economy as a whole.

"I think that we're raising the profile for Baltimore," Hyde said. "This is how Austin got put on the map. This is how Seattle got put on the map."

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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