High-tech lab is moving to UM hospital Facility bringing 60 jobs, payroll of $2.5 million a year

'A real coup' for city, Md.

Red Cross employees do blood, tissue typing for transplant patients

March 04, 1996|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The American Red Cross is moving its most important tissue-typing and immunologic research laboratory to Baltimore, bringing with it close to 60 jobs and an annual payroll of about $2.5 million.

Now in Rockville, the National HLA Reference Laboratory will be moved by summer to the University of Maryland Medical Center on Greene Street. The hospital is spending $3 million to renovate 11,000 square feet on its second floor.

The laboratory performs state-of-the-art blood and tissue typing vital to the success of organ and bone-marrow transplants. It also is a national repository for tissue samples from potential bone-marrow donors and a center for the study of the human immune system.

"This is just going to be a real coup for us and for the city and the state," said Dr. Morton I. Rapoport, president and chief executive of the University of Maryland Medical System.

"We've developed a very strong transplant program," he said. Having the lab on-site provides "an enormous opportunity for collaboration." The UM hospital relies on the Johns Hopkins Immunogenetics Lab for its HLA typing.

HLA stands for human leucocyte antigen, a class of proteins found on the surface of nearly all organ cells and on certain cells of the immune system. The proteins act as the cells' ID cards, labeling the cells as "self," to be left alone by the immune system; or as "foreign," intruders that must be attacked and killed.

Dr. Stephen T. Bartlett, who directs UM hospital's transplant program, said close collaboration between his program and Red Cross lab personnel should make possible "some of the more subtle testing that allows transplantation to individuals who otherwise will not be able to get a transplant."

The Red Cross laboratory's director, Dr. Michael Chopek, said the opportunity to work closely with the hospital's organ transplant program -- one of the largest in the nation -- was a key factor in the move. He expects it will increase his lab's clinical work by 20 percent.

"This is a real winner for us and for them," he said.

Baltimore was competing with Philadelphia for the lab. The city won in part because of $500,000 in public and private grants to assist the lab's relocation, development and operation. "That put it over the top," Dr. Chopek said.

The package includes $200,000 from the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development; $200,000 from Baltimore Development Corp. (the city's quasi-public economic development arm); and $100,000 from the Abell Foundation.

The state Board of Public Works also will be asked to approve employment training incentive grants of $20,000 from the Maryland Industrial Training Program. The mayor's Office of Employment Development has offered a $10,000 training grant.

"The continued development of the life sciences is a critical part of the city's economic development strategy, providing jobs and opportunities to our citizens," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said.

Dr. Chopek expects that 30 percent of his staff -- close to 20 people -- will not follow the lab to Baltimore, creating about 60 job openings. Most of the lab's jobs require highly trained personnel. The lab expects to increase employment to as many as 80 people within two years of the move.

The Red Cross is the second high-profile biomedical laboratory moving to Baltimore this year. Dr. Robert C. Gallo, an internationally recognized AIDS researcher, is setting up his Institute of Human Virology as part of the University of Maryland's Medical Biotechnology Center -- a move greased by $12 million in state and city incentives.

"This new lab fits in well" with Dr. Gallo's institute, and "provides more evidence of Maryland's strengths in the life sciences," Gov. Parris N. Glendening said.

Dr. Gallo said researchers one day may find correlations between HLA factors and resistance to acquired immune deficiency syndrome, so having the Red Cross lab close at hand "will give us more information and insights than we could have had if they were elsewhere. I really think there will be collaboration. But I can't promise that."

Scientists have learned that HLA proteins identify organs or cells to the immune system as "self" or "foreign." Those perceived as foreign will trigger the body's immune system to attack. People born without HLAs have no ability to fight off infections, and certain combinations of HLA proteins have been linked with vulnerability to certain diseases, such as arthritis, insulin-dependent diabetes and some gastrointestinal illnesses.

Because the body will reject donated organs or blood products that carry "foreign" HLA proteins, it is critically important for people in need of a transplant to find donors with perfect, or near-perfect HLA matches.

It's not easy. Each newborn inherits a complex assortment of HLA proteins from the parents. Dr. Dean Mann, director of the medical center's Division of Immunogenetics, said there is an extremely high degree of "polymorphism," or variation, in the combinations of HLA proteins across the population.

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