News Column

Jupiter Puts Max Planck to the Test

Dec. 3, 2012

Stacey Singer

The rare microscope that neuroscientist David Fitzpatrick uses to peer inside living brains and watch nerve cells fire was developed within Germany's Max Planck Society, and brought to Florida courtesy of state and Palm Beach County taxpayers.

Nearly $700 million in public money have been poured into the gamble to bring both Scripps Florida and Max Planck to the area, a gamble made during the Jeb Bush administration in the belief that biotechnology would transform the area's economy and give the world new cures for diseases.

The value of that pricey biotech bet is on public display this week in Jupiter [Fla.] as Germany's Max Planck Society marks the formal grand opening of its first and only U.S. branch, highlighted by a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday.

Surrounded by native plants and preferred parking for fuel-efficient cars, the glassy Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience along Donald Ross Road has been six years in the making. Inside, it holds exceptional tools, such as Fitzpatrick's extraordinarily precise two-photon microscope, as well as eight other research group leaders focused on fundamental questions about how the brain works.

Could expansion of human knowledge be seen as one measure of the return on taxpayers' investment? Fitzpatrick believes that it should. Billions of dollars have been spent on studying Alzheimer's disease and testing drug candidates, yet science still can't say with certainty what's causing the death of brain cells.

Parkinson's disease, manic depression, schizophrenia -- so many brain disorders are poorly understood, he said. Taking a step back to really understand how the healthy brain works may in the end prove more efficient, he said.

"It's important to be straightforward with people and make them understand how little we know about fundamental brain organization," Fitzpatrick said. "Insight must precede application."

Cluster Came at Great Expense

Coaxing the Max Planck institute to set up next to Scripps Florida was a costly proposition. Palm Beach County put up almost $87 million, Florida Atlantic University donated $6.3 million of its land, Jupiter waived $260,000 in impact fees and the state paid $94.1 million.

The controversial commitment was first broached in 2006, two years after state and county taxpayers had committed more than $500 million to Scripps Florida with a promise that Scripps alone could launch a bioscience cluster. The then-president of The Scripps Research Institute, Dr. Richard Lerner, sold local politicos on bringing another top-tier institute to assure the long-term success of a sustainable local biotechnology industry.

It's coming to fruition at an unexpectedly difficult time, however. The biotechnology industry globally has seen its boom go flat and venture capital investment in spinoff companies pull back. Pharmaceutical companies are swallowing a bitter pill of cost-cutting, and the federal grants that underpin most researchers are teetering on the fiscal cliff of budget cuts.

Max Planck is one of the rare places that will float above those difficulties because of its public financing, Fitzpatrick said. Following the German model, Max Planck's scientists are assured support for five years, put through a review, then given four more years. They are encouraged to seek additional outside grants, but it's not mandatory.

Germany's Max Planck Society has not offered a subsidy to Planck Florida to date, but that is under consideration now, Fitzpatrick said.

A study by Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development agency, has predicted that over 20 years the investment in Planck will generate $2 billion in economic activity.

The number of new jobs at Scripps and Planck wouldn't by themselves generate such a return -- there are 545 people to be hired by Scripps and eventually 180 by Planck. Scripps has nearly hit its final target, with its roster of 497 faculty and staff. Planck is halfway, with 90 employees. The educational payoff for local educators has been another return for taxpayers, Fitzpatrick said.

Planck Florida's first scientists began working in July 2009 in Florida Atlantic University's MacArthur Campus, in the temporary labs that first had been built for Scripps. Now that they have moved into their permanent home, FAU will make that lab space the new home for several biology research groups.

Spinoffs Key to Investment Return

It was, however, the potential for licensing revenues and the creation of spinoff companies that persuaded politicians to support the public investment. Planck hasn't generated such activity, Fitzpatrick said, but it will come. It already has for Scripps Florida, which held its grand opening in February 2009.

One of the biotech startups that Scripps Florida helped attract to Jupiter was Envoy Therapeutics, a small firm nurtured with the help of Scripps Scientific Advisory Board member and Nobel laureate Dr. Paul Greengard. It developed a novel system for developing drugs that act on the brain.

It was acquired last month by Japanese pharmaceutical firm Takeda Pharmaceuticals for $140 million. After March 2013, Takeda announced it plans to move most of the Jupiter-based scientific staff to San Diego.

Much more is emerging from the biotechnology investment, argued Scripps' Douglas Bingham, executive vice president and chief operating officer.

By the end of 2011, Scripps Florida had filed for more than 100 U.S. and foreign patents and licensed its technology 26 times.

Scripps Florida scientists brought $54 million in grants into Palm Beach County in 2012 -- they have raised more than $200 million since the institute was launched in 2004, Bingham said.

"It's going to bring in that much and probably more in perpetuity," Bingham said. "Is that worth the investment?"

As the CEO and scientific director of Max Planck Florida, Fitzpatrick said he's regularly asked to explain what the public has received in return for its $188 million investment. He speaks about the value of basic science, and the value of collaborations.

Fitzpatrick said he's surprised daily by what he sees under his two-photon microscope, and also by what he does not see. There's not an enormous amount of firing between nerve cells going on as learning takes place, he said. The firing is actually rather sparse -- efficient and precise.

"You can ask me how relevant this is for diseases. We don't know," he said. "I think it's really important to understand."

Once a month, Planck neuroscientists meet with Scripps colleagues for dinner and a research presentation. Scripps' neuroscience chairman, Davis, said the atmosphere is collaborative, not competitive.

His group recently discovered that the fruit fly brain has a mechanism it launches to forget stored memories, and that specialized neurons must continually fire for memories to not surface -- a startling and unexpected finding that he's eager to investigate in other animals.

"There are 100 billion neurons in the brain, the same number (of stars) in the Milky Way," Davis said. "Solving the brain, what goes wrong in a variety of disorders, is no small task." Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience

Grand Opening Week

Tuesday (by invitation only): Round-table discussion on the state's biotechnology investment.

10 a.m. Wednesday (by invitation only): Ribbon-cutting to mark the building's formal opening.

10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday (free and open to the public), Neuroscience Discovery Day: An all-ages open house featuring scientific experiments, an 'Images of Science' exhibition, tours, lectures and more. Preregister at

Source: (c) 2012 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

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