Genetic research center to be built in Fairfax County

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A $200 million genetic research facility planned for Fairfax County could bring with it thousands of jobs over the next decade and spur spinoff businesses that would focus on the fast-growing field of personalized medicine, Virginia officials and researchers said Monday as they announced the move.

Enticed by millions of dollars in tax breaks and a location close to universities and federal agencies, officials with the Ignite Institute for Individualized Health, a nonprofit organization specializing in DNA research, announced that the center's facility would be in a 300,000-square-foot campus in the Northern Virginia suburb. A location has not been selected.

The institute's founder, California geneticist Dietrich Stephan, said the institute would create 415 jobs in the region over the next five years and would partner with Fairfax-based Inova Health System, the community hospital company where Stephan will serve as an executive director.

"This is the place where personalized medicine will take root and flourish," Stephan said.

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) was on hand for Monday's announcement, along with Gov.-elect Robert F. McDonnell (R). Kaine called the Ignite center "not just a catalyst but an accelerator of biotechnical expertise in Virginia."

San Francisco and Boston were also considered as potential sites for the lab, but Stephan said the Washington area was a "perfect fit," with its educated workforce and proximity to the nation's capital.

Research at the Ignite Institute will focus on personalized medicine using patients' molecular blueprints -- a rapidly developing industry in which therapies can be "made to order" for diseases such as Alzheimer's, autism, cancer and diabetes. Drugs can be chosen based on their interaction with specific genes, and gene analysis, or genotyping, can screen for congenital conditions years before symptoms crop up. At Ignite, doctors and researchers will work side by side in an attempt to create drugs and medical devices, said J. Knox Singleton, Inova's president and chief executive.

Ignite will differ from similar facilities in that it will focus more on the practical applications of its DNA research, said Timothy A. McCaffrey, professor and vice chairman of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at George Washington University's School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

"While this DNA research has matured, many doctors have been slow to integrate it," McCaffrey said. "You have to remember, there's a lot of physicians out there that were trained when Watson and Crick first discovered the DNA sequence in the 1950s. So to actually incorporate this technology with patients, to me, is a game-changer."

Fairfax beat out neighboring Loudoun County in snagging the facility; Loudoun had been pursuing the project but didn't offer the financial advantages Fairfax proposed, officials said.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) touted the move as a sign the county had become a "major player" in the national biotechnology industry. She also said the institute would provide a boost to the county's commercial tax base, as did moves by Hilton Hotels and Science Applications International Corp. to Fairfax this year.

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