Jeff Atwater, Chief Finance Officer of Florida, Cornelia Quennet-Thielen, German State Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, Prof. Peter Gruss, Max Planck Society President, and Dr. David Fitzpatrick, the Max Planck Florida Institute Scientific Director and CEO, opened the brand new Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience (MPFI) at an official ceremony in Jupiter, Florida. It is the first institute of the Max Planck Society, which is based in Germany, to be located in the United States.
The Max Planck Society (MPS), which today has over 80 institutes, is Germany’s leading research organization – since its foundation more than 60 years ago it has produced 17 Nobel laureates from its ranks. Board of Palm Beach County Commission Chairman Steven Abrams, Jupiter Mayor Karen Golanka, Florida Atlantic University President Dr. Mary Jane Saunders and Max Planck Florida Foundation Chairman George Elmore also took part in the opening ceremony.
The new institute, ideally integrated on a campus with the Scripps Research Institute and the Florida Atlantic University, carries out research into fundamental brain processes to improve the chances of curing disorders such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease. There are now nine Research Groups at the institute in total, which are led by the two Directors, Dr. David Fitzpatrick and Dr. Ryohei Yasuda. The institute plans to increase the size of its workforce to 135 employees by 2015.
“The need to better understand how the brain functions and provide new treatments is vitally important to millions of people in America and across the world. Cures cannot be provided in areas where research has not been carried out,” said Dr. David Fitzpatrick, Scientific Director and CEO of MPFI, outlining the institute’s mission. “The fundamental discoveries that we make will be shared with researchers around the globe in order to develop treatments and cures for various human brain disorders.”
Max Planck Society President Peter Gruss highlighted the benefits of the location: “Our scientists have found outstanding local partners at Jupiter in the Scripps Research Institute and the Florida Atlantic University. Together with these organizations, our institute constitutes a high-performance neuroscience research cluster that will continue to excel.” Gruss also pointed out that the Max Planck’s presence in the U.S. was mutually beneficial. “On one hand, it will raise the profile of the excellent research conducted by German science in the U.S., the leading research nation. On the other hand, the U.S. commitment enables us to acquire outstanding researchers, who probably would not have come to Germany, for the Max Planck Society’s scientific community.”
State Secretary Cornelia Quennet-Thielen declared: “We have driven forward the internationalization of German science in recent years because we want to shape research collaboration with the best in the world as an active partner. Collaboration with the U.S. plays an extremely important role here. The Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience meets all the criteria to become a beacon of German-U.S. scientific collaboration.”
“There is no better place than Florida for the Max Planck institute to call home as it joins the ranks of other research institutes in our innovative state,” Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said. “Through its research, the institute will work to bring about scientific and medical advancements, as well as prompt economic growth and job creation in Florida. It is my hope that it will also encourage and inspire future scientists, and increase interest for science, technology, engineering and math majors among our students.”
Max Planck President Peter Gruss believes that the new institute ideally complements the MPS’s research portfolio: “The researchers, led by Directors David Fitzpatrick and Ryohei Yasuda, are focusing on a highly promising field of research within neuroscience. Achieving a better understanding of the neuronal networks in the cerebral cortex can help millions of people suffering from neuropsychiatric disorders. This issue will now be approached from very different angles at Jupiter. The start-up funding from the State of Florida and Palm Beach County has provided a solid foundation.”
President Peter Gruss also made special reference to the achievements of Nobel Prize laureate and MPS scientist Bert Sakmann. “Through his efforts to set up activities in Florida, he has made a significant contribution to firmly establishing the institute as part of the international scientific community. This also applies to cooperation between the institute in Florida and Max Planck neuroscience institutes in Germany.”
Focus on Basic Research
Basic scientific research can be slow, difficult and expensive, but it is nevertheless a vital element for practically all innovations. The Max Planck Society, which gives gifted scientists flexibility and financial backing, embodies the value of curiosity-driven and creative basic scientific research – an approach which has achieved proven results. The Max Planck Society is Germany’s most successful research organization – since its foundation in 1948 it has produced 17 Nobel Prize laureates from its ranks. This puts it on a par with the world’s leading and most prestigious research institutions.
In line with the maxim established by Max Planck that “understanding must precede application”, the society pursues its clear research mission to conduct systematic, science-driven basic research in the fields of natural, bio, human and social sciences. Researchers aim to achieve breakthrough innovations which provide the public with new applications and technologies over the medium term. Entire sectors of industry have been based on the basic research carried out at its institutes, such as the plastics industry, which would not have flourished without the Ziegler-Natta catalysers. It has produced techniques such as flash, which are today part of all MRI equipment and have become an essential part of medical diagnostics. And it has laid the foundations for the development of cancer treatments such as Sutent.
Max Planck institutes are engaged in research areas which are particularly innovative and are very time and cost intensive. The institutes are built up solely around the world’s leading researchers. They themselves define their research topics and are given the best working conditions, as well as free reign in selecting their staff. This is the core of the Harnack principle, which has been successfully applied for a hundred years and dates back to Adolf von Harnack, the first President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society founded in 1911. The Max Planck Society continues the tradition of its predecessor institution with this structural principle of the person-centred research organization.
The immediate need for research in the field of neuroscience is compelling. To this day, there are still a host of unanswered questions about how the brain develops, functions, and is organized. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, autism and schizophrenia are all neurological disorders that are well known to doctors, researchers and the public; however, despite intense efforts, treatments and cures remain elusive. The lack of fundamental knowledge about the brain has been a significant impediment to medical breakthroughs.
The research groups at the MPFI
The Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience currently has nine distinct Research Groups, each led by one Group Leader and consisting of several researchers and students. They focus on a number of distinct areas such as neural disorders, brain signalling, cortical circuits, neural plasticity and digital neuroanatomy. Some of the main research areas are set out below:
- Dr. David Fitzpatrick, the Max Planck Florida Institute Scientific Director and CEO, is focusing on how patterns of neural activity induced by experience shape the development of brain circuits early in life. Learning more about the fundamental mechanisms that are responsible for constructing circuits early in life is critical for developing treatments for a host of neurodevelopmental disorders.
- Dr. Bert Sakmann, a Nobel Prize winner, is studying the capacity for neural structures to change even during adulthood based on sensory experiences. Further understanding of the mechanisms that are responsible for this in the adult brain could provide new avenues for therapies that could optimize recovery of function impaired by neurological disease. Dr. Sakmann has also developed the first realistic three-dimensional diagram of a brain circuit—a major step towards creating a complete computer model of the brain.
- Dr. Ryohei Yasuda, the Max Planck Florida Institute Scientific Director, is working on the ability for synapses to change the strength of their connectivity, which is thought to underlie our ability to learn and remember.
- Dr. Sam Young is endeavouring to measure how information passes from one nerve cell to another – a necessary precursor to understanding the root causes behind Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s Disease and mental retardation. He has developed research tools to study genes linked to Parkinson’s.
- Dr. McLean Bolton analyses the brain’s neural circuit function. She aims to establish how brain circuitry is altered by injury and by genetic disorders, such as Alzheimer’s Disease, autism, schizophrenia and epilepsy.
- Dr. Jason Christie conducts research into neurotransmission at the synapses. He concentrates on how synaptic transmission becomes stronger or weaker due to preceding neuronal activity.
- Dr. James Schummers studies the functional organization of the neural circuits that comprise the cerebral cortex – he focuses on the brain region used for advanced intellectual activities. He is not just interested in neuronal cells but above all astrocytes. These belong to the glial cells and support the neuronal cells of the cerebral cortex in various ways.
- Dr. Hyungbae Kwon aims to understand how neural circuits are properly constructed by environmental inputs during development. His research will provide fundamental insights into the regulation of cortical circuit formation and provide an understanding of the development of neurological and psychiatric disorders.
- Dr. Hiroki Taniguchi is conducting research into nerve cells that use the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA at their synapses. These inhibitory neurones regulate the activity of circuits in the cerebral cortex and play a key role in various disorders.
Designed by the Washington, DC office of ZGF Architects LLP (ZGF), the new research facility for MPFI will provide state-of-the-art working conditions for the scientists and research teams. The building is designed to provide nearly 5,400 square meters of laboratory space that will house wet and dry bench research, instrumentation labs, computational research, core imaging facilities and microscope suites, information technology services and offices for researchers and support staff. The scientific facilities are divided into three research wings. Conference rooms, a 100-seat auditorium, lounges and administration offices are centrally located around an open lobby that connects all three floor levels. A large atrium is directly connected to an outdoor terrace on the second floor and provides a central meeting space. The new facility also has six guest laboratories to ensure sufficient space for cooperation with researchers from other organizations.
The MPFI sets high standards in terms of the sustainability of laboratory facilities. Energy consumption is to be reduced to a minimum. The air conditioning was optimized by the structural design. Laboratory and office spaces have large windows facing north for maximum daylight, and south-facing offices have external sunshades calibrated to provide ample daylight while minimizing heat and glare. All areas are equipped with sophisticated, energy-efficient air conditioning technology. There are also mechanical systems with state-of-the-art energy recovery wheels to capture useable energy from building exhaust. Another feature is the recycling of moisture removed in the process of dehumidification that contributes to the building’s cooling system. Drought-tolerant native species are used for landscaping, and irrigation will be provided by a municipal reclaimed water system. The new institute building was awarded the LEED Gold Certificate for sustainable construction in view of its various energy efficiency measures.
The Emerging Life Science Sector in South Florida
The MPFI is the newest addition to Life Sciences South Florida – an industry cluster in South Florida focused on life sciences, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, and information technology. With an increasingly globalized world, the Max Planck Society recognized the value of establishing an institute which would allow it to strengthen relationships with the outstanding scientific community in the U.S. The selection of Palm Beach County was made due to the tremendous financial and collaborative commitment by the State of Florida, all levels of local government, the Business Development Board’s assistance, widespread support by the community and substantial collaborative opportunities with educational institutions including Florida Atlantic University.
The growth of Life Sciences South Florida is a success story for Florida’s economy. The industry has grown by over 42% in the past five years and has nearly 200 biotech companies in the state, according to BioFlorida, which tracks growth in this sector. Over the past decade, the State of Florida was ranked 1st for growth in the drugs/pharmaceutical companies, drugs/pharmaceutical employment and medical device companies categories —trends which continued even during the most recent recession.
The MPFI will contribute to the county’s overall economic base, establishing an important, sustainable foundation to develop and attract knowledge-based companies. This fosters future development in this industry cluster and creates a pipeline of high-salaried jobs.
The Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience is also committed to promoting educational opportunities locally through graduate and undergraduate research programs, such as the Program in Integrative Biology and Neuroscience (IBAN), a PhD program offered in partnership with Florida Atlantic University; summer research internships; public lecture series; art exhibitions and the Brain Bee competition for local high school students.