Feinstein eyes $400M center for bioelectronic med

MIRA, MIRA, on the ball: Feinstein Institute head Kevin Tracey is one of two Feinstein researchers receiving major NIH awards this week.

By GREGORY ZELLER // Hundreds of millions of dollars, 250,000 square feet, dozens of laboratories and one throbbing center at the heart of a reinvigorated Long Island economy.

Yep. Kevin Tracey thinks big.

His vision for a sparkling new Center for Bioelectric Medicine is barely past the drawing board, but already the president and CEO of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research – the R&D arm of the North Shore-LIJ Health System – envisions a game-changing facility that serves as a regional economic backbone while drastically reducing modern medicine’s reliance on pharmaceuticals.

Tracey acknowledges “there will always be a role for drugs in the treatment of certain diseases.” But with his vagus nerve experiments unlocking new treatment options, he’s pitching an engineering and experimentation mecca “where we do the research to make the devices that replace drugs.”

Tracey couldn’t say for certain that the center would be constructed on Long Island – “We’re looking on Long Island and we’re looking at other options” – but with the Island desperately searching for a post-Grumman economic identity, the stars just may be aligned.

“Long Island offers several significant advantages,” he noted. “Proximity to the Feinstein Institute and to the campuses of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Hofstra, as well as Stony Brook (University) and Brookhaven (National Laboratory), plus a population of young people interested in technology.”

Wherever it’s built, the center will be “on the order of $400 million,” according to Tracey, with up to 50 laboratories and medical-engineering shops filling about a quarter-of-a-million square feet. The focus will be a field that combines neuroscience, molecular biology and biomechanical engineering, with the facility employing as many as 400 technical professionals and numerous office administrators.

Tracey said the Feinstein Institute and North Shore-LIJ are looking for “major commitments” to help make the center a reality, including strategic partnerships with government and industry and a multifaceted fundraising effort targeting individuals and foundations. Tracey wouldn’t comment on any specific money raised so far, but the Feinstein CEO did note “tremendous interest from all of those sectors.”

Big Pharma is almost certainly a player. Bioelectric treatments could soon replace drug therapies that earn pharmceutical companies billions of dollars a year and top players like GlaxoSmithKline are rushing in.

Also, “There’s a pent-up need on Long Island and in New York to launch a scalable new industry like this,” Tracey said. “This is a major opportunity.”

It’s also a major opportunity to advance the next generation of healthcare.

Tracey, cofounder of California biotech firm SetPoint Medical, is credited with the discovery of the inflammatory reflex, the natural mechanism by which the central nervous system regulates the immune system. He recently authored a paper noting that low-level electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve, which extends from the brain to the abdomen, can reduce inflammation throughout the body, making the non-pharmaceutical therapy a potential treatment for numerous inflammatory diseases.

And vagus nerve stimulation, Tracey noted, is just one application of bioelectric medicine.

That makes him the preeminent researcher in a cutting-edge field with potential implications for patients suffering from cancer, diabetes, hypertension, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis and a host of other conditions.

“The vagus nerve shows that it can be done,” he said. “The potential for treating diseases is extensive. These are big, big markets.”

Which is why the center is a big, big deal, not only in gathering the resources to make it happen but in its potential as an economic driver – “the kind of idea that can launch a new industrial corridor,” according to Tracey. Certainly, the Feinstein Institute thinks so: Tracey has already begun recruiting potential CBM residents, including “leaders” who will “help develop a plan as to what the building is going to be and where it’s going.”

The Feinstein president couldn’t say whether planners are thinking new construction or renovation of an existing facility, noting “everything is on the table.” He did add, however, that “the ideal location would be in a campus environment, with all the things that come with a university or a research campus.”

“On Long Island, this makes sense,” Tracey said. “Ranging from Computer Associates to the Broadhollow facilities, there’s precedence for this.”

The next step will be forming some of those strategic partnerships, ideally by the end of this year, followed by the creation of a building plan and construction schedule. Tracey recognizes that redefining modern medicine and simultaneously rebuilding a regional economy is no minor undertaking, but noted “overwhelmingly positive” responses from “very significant potential corporate sponsors in the technology space.”

“The response from chip companies and from medical device companies and potential partners in pharma has been tremendous,” he said. “The idea is a good one, and we look forward to building it here.”