ELLSWORTH — The Jackson Laboratory received over $100 million in 2020 from new federal grants awarded for research and education programs across a range of fields: Alzheimer’s, cancer, rare diseases, cardiovascular diseases and COVID-19. The research institute pivoted last year to help with the COVID-19 effort, including processing tests for 60,000 Mainers at its Farmington, Conn., campus. It also offered cryopreservation services for mouse models to universities, freezing mouse sperm and eggs in tanks of liquid nitrogen.
But the 70-plus researchers and faculty of the lab, which has facilities in Bar Harbor, Farmington, Conn., Sacramento, Calif., and Ellsworth, still carried on their work, said Ken Fasman, Ph.D., senior vice president for research. “The things we are trying to study at the labs, these haven’t gone away, and we need this work to continue.”
At the same time, Jackson Lab began working on understanding COVID-19, too.
“I think one of the most important things we’ve able to do for COVID research, we developed a number of mouse models of the disease,” Fasman said.
The mouse models focus on the “long-haulers,” those who survive the infection but have neurological and other residual effects that last for months.
“There’s a very poor understanding of that aspect of the disease,” Fasman said. “The mouse models will help us understand [its] complexities.”
Grants the lab has received reflect its work on COVID-19. Professor Karolina Palucka received $1.1 million from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to focus on understanding the specific mechanisms of coronavirus infection, in order to provide a solid foundation for therapy and vaccine development and refinement. In addition, Scientific Director and Professor Nadia Rosenthal received two “gifts” to develop mouse strains that reflect human genetic diversity for research into coronavirus infection.
Like many organizations, Jackson Lab had supply-chain issues at times during the pandemic.
“In that first couple of months in 2020, things were a little rocky,” Fasman said. “As soon as we saw the pandemic begin to emerge, we reached out to all our regular and supplemental suppliers, especially with respect to PPE (personal protective equipment) — that was the first thing.”
Fears over grant funding being delayed or vanishing during the pandemic quickly eased.
“We were very concerned last March but ironically, it’s actually the reverse,” Fasman noted.
Grants received last year include $11.8 million for research into Alzheimer’s and aging, $5.6 million for cancer research, $10.6 million over five years for rare disease research and $9.5 million for cardiovascular disease research. Professor Bob Burgess also received the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, a seven-year, $2.8 million grant.
Fasman said more COVID-19 research may be on the way, as the lab is proposing a large study to track patients in order to understand how COVID-19 vaccines may be more or less effective depending on the age of a patient and his or her pre-existing conditions. This will help develop a new strain, if necessary, he added.
“I think we’re very proud of the fact that we were able to use the labs’ existing strengths in, for example, immunological diseases, and use that very quickly to be able to help COVID-19 research,” Fasman said.