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UPMC to build center in Sicily

Luis Fábregas
| Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Mounting an aggressive expansion into the European market, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center announced Tuesday it is partnering with Italy's government to build a $398 million biomedical research and biotechnology center in Sicily.

The center -- completely funded by Italy -- will employ about 600 scientists in five areas of biomedical research, including the development of drugs and vaccines, molecular imaging, tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, officials from UPMC and the Italian government said from Rome, where the plan was unveiled.

"In little more than 11 months, we have managed to find the necessary funds for what can become a financial and scientific resource for the entire Mediterranean Basin," said Gianfranco Micciche, deputy minister for economic affairs and finance for Southern Italy.

UPMC officials called the new center a natural follow-up to its successful hospital in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, where doctors expect to perform more than 120 organ transplants this year.

"We've been able to be very successful in exporting technology," said Chuck Bogosta, managing director of strategic business initiatives for UPMC. "We are being recognized as an organization that is serious about delivering treatment."

When it opens in 2010, the Sicilian research center will be among several facilities UPMC is opening in key parts of Europe.

In the fall, UPMC is opening two cancer treatment centers in Ireland.

Patients at the $5 million facilities in Dublin and Waterford initially will receive radiation therapy, but other treatments could follow, Bogosta said. UPMC is paying for about $1 million in equipment. The Irish government is paying the rest.

"The Europeans are not looking to import their patients to the U.S.," Bogosta said. "They're looking for the technology to come to them."

Partnerships in other countries such as Great Britain could follow, but those deals have been hampered by reimbursement issues.

"They're working on putting together a reimbursement system that would make it favorable for us to go there," Bogosta said.

The 200,000-square-foot research and biotechnology center will be located in the small town of Cirini on a piece of land along the Mediterranean donated by Sicily.

It will be managed by UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, which began discussions with Italy's government last year.

The campus eventually could be expanded to include a new hospital and medical school, although UPMC officials said those plans are preliminary.

Among other things, its scientists will work on developing vaccines for infections such as HIV, SARS and bird flu, according to Pitt documents.

While Pitt already operates a center for vaccine research in Oakland, officials said having two vaccine programs will help develop vaccines against twice as many diseases.

"There are simply many more scientific questions to be addressed than any one center can possibly address by itself," said Dr. Arthur S. Levine, senior vice chancellor of health sciences and dean of Pitt's medical school.

Scientists also will work to develop agents such as the Pitt-created Pittsburgh Compound B, an imaging dye used to help diagnose Alzheimer's disease. Such work could start before the center opens. UPMC officials said some scientists will be recruited to work in Pittsburgh and later transferred to Sicily.

UPMC has managed a $58 million hospital in Palermo since 2004.

Known as ISMETT, for Mediterranean Institute for Transplantation and Advanced Specialized Therapies, the hospital drew criticism from some Italian physicians and politicians who spoke against its hefty price tag.

Yesterday, however, the new venture drew praise from some former critics.

"If they improve research facilities, it's going to be a major thing," said Dr. Carlo F. Marcelletti, a pediatric cardiologist at Civico Hospital.

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