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9 Mass. centers share $55.5m in grants

MIT leads list with $15m, tied for tops in US

By Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / May 15, 2010

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Scientists at nine Massachusetts research centers were awarded $55.5 million in federal stimulus grants yesterday to pay for new labs and equipment and, at one hospital, renovations so that hulking imaging machines can be shielded from trolley electrical lines that scrambled pictures.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology received the most, $15 million, to renovate a building in Cambridge devoted to public health research concentrated on neuroscience, aging, cancer, heart disease, and novel drug delivery. Only two other institutions nationally received that much money.

The $1 billion in stimulus grants parceled out yesterday by the National Institutes of Health come at an especially crucial moment for hospitals and universities that have seen endowments wither, donors dwindle, and student aid demands grow as the economy tumbled. Institutions pursuing federal money had to show that their projects were scientifically worthy and that construction designs conformed with increasingly stringent environmental standards.

“Institutional budgets have really been hit hard lately,’’ said Gregory Farber of NIH’s National Center for Research Resources. “The other thing that very clearly is going to happen is that we certainly are going to create jobs in the construction industry.’’

Farber estimated the equivalent of 12,000 full-time construction jobs lasting a year would result from the $1 billion.

Boston University received $5.9 million to renovate and expand laboratories on its Charles River campus, where specialists in medicinal chemistry hunt for new ways of targeting and treating diseases. There has been less university money for that sort of bricks-and-mortar work since the economy soured.

“We’re spending much more on financial aid now than we would have two years ago because our students have much more need,’’ said BU’s president, Robert Brown. At the same time, he said, the university has tried to limit increases in room and board charges, further straining its budget.

Nearly $6.1 million in stimulus money is destined for Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the story behind its project reflects Boston’s character.

The hospital conducts some of its most sophisticated radiology research in the historic building that in another era housed the Lying-In Hospital, one of the nation’s first maternity wards. After recruiting a high-powered research team, doctors discovered that high-tech snapshots being generated by MRI machines were not up to expected standards.

“So we did a little detective work,’’ said Dr. Steven Seltzer, the Brigham’s radiology chief.

They found a large underground power line for Green Line trolley cars stretched nearby. “And when it surges to provide power to a trolley, it creates electrical magnetic interference,’’ Seltzer said.

The stimulus money will be used to renovate the imaging lab and reconfigure the equipment, shifting it away from the power line. That will allow research into topics such as differences in brain wiring between patients suffering from mental illness and those who do not. Scientists are also using the equipment to examine subtle biochemical changes in the brains of retired football players and soldiers with possible brain injuries.

Other Massachusetts recipients included Tufts University ($9.5 million), the University of Massachusetts Amherst ($7.1 million), the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester ($5.2 million), Forsyth Institute ($4.4 million), Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center ($1.8 million), and Schepens Eye Research Institute ($500,000).

Stephen Smith can be reached at stsmith@globe.com.

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