July 17, 2011

The Bottom Line: The mice that roared

Jackson Laboratory brings in most of its revenue through the sale of mice, but its mission lies in research programs that study the role of genetics in disease.

By J. Hemmerdinger jhemmerdinger@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BAR HARBOR — Time stands still for 3,707,613 cryopreserved mice embryos at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor.

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Dr. Rob Taft closes a tank of liquid nitrogen containing several hundred thousand mouse embryos in a room with millions of stored embryos at Jackson Lab in Bar Harbor. The mice are bred with specific genes.

Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Research assistant Tom Sproule works at Jackson Lab in Bar Harbor. Scientists and professors in Jackson Lab’s 36 research programs study the role of genetics in metabolism, cardiovascular function, reproductive biology, birth defects, aging, deafness, obesity and a range of disorders. They also study cancer, HIV-AIDS, lupus, diabetes and other conditions.

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THE JACKSON LABORATORY

HEADQUARTERS: Bar Harbor

HISTORY: In 1923, University of Maine President Clarence Cook Little held a natural history camping trip with six students in Bar Harbor. A few years later he founded the Roscoe B. Jackson Memorial Laboratory, which in 1963 became The Jackson Laboratory. Two fires killed Jackson Lab’s mice, in 1947 and 1989. The organization expanded in Sacramento, Calif., in 2009 and has plans for a genome center in New York City. Executives terminated a plan to expand in Florida earlier this year.

NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: 1,212 in Bar Harbor, 110 in Sacramento and about 30 elsewhere.

EXECUTIVES: Charles Hewett, who is executive vice president and chief operating officer, and Robert Braun, associate director and chair of research, share chief executive duties. The board is searching for an executive to succeed former CEO Richard Woychik, who stepped down in January.

WORTH NOTING: Jackson Lab keeps about 3.7 million frozen mice embryos in Bar Harbor, more mammalian embryos than anywhere else in the world.

FINANCIALS: The organization had $200.1 million in unaudited operating revenue in fiscal year 2011, and $166 million in operating revenue in fiscal year 2010. Also in 2010, the JAX Mice and Services division generated revenue of $98.7 million.

They lie chilled in steel tanks of liquid nitrogen to negative 196 degrees Celsius, at which temperature chemical reactions halt.

At some point, the embryos may be thawed and implanted in live mice to recreate valuable breeds of laboratory mice.

Mice are big business for Bar Harbor-based Jackson Lab. The 82-year-old nonprofit enterprise breeds and sells them to researchers worldwide, using the proceeds to help fund studies of the relationship between genes and human diseases.

But while mice are critical to Jackson Lab's operations, executives attribute the organization's longevity to its disease-fighting mission.

"The diseases we work on are the complex diseases of the developed world that so far have proved intractable," said Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Charles Hewett. "The hope that we offer (has) kept us here."

Jackson Lab has a 43-acre campus in Bar Harbor and employs 1,212 people in the city, making it the largest workplace in Hancock County.

Jackson also employs roughly 110 staff at an office in Sacramento, Calif., and about 30 staff at other locations.

The average salary of Jackson Lab's Bar Harbor employees is about $55,000 plus benefits, said Hewett.

Jackson Lab's history can be traced to 1923, when University of Maine President Clarence Cook Little held a natural history camping trip with six students in Bar Harbor. In 1929, Little founded the Roscoe B. Jackson Memorial Laboratory, named after the president of Hudson Motor Car Co., who supported the new organization. Edsel Ford, son of Ford Motor Co. founder Henry Ford, was another backer.

Jackson Lab had seven staffers in 1930 and began selling mice in 1933. A fire in 1947 destroyed the organization's facility and killed its mice.

In 1963, the organization became The Jackson Laboratory. New labs were build in Bar Harbor, but another fire in 1989 killed 500,000 mice.

Jackson has long been funded by significant government grants, many from the National Institutes of Health. In 2000, the agency granted Jackson $16.3 million for neurological disease research and $14 million to study heart, lung, blood and sleep disorders.

Another $15.1 million grant in 2006 allowed Jackson to create the Center for Genome Dynamics.

Jackson Lab opened a Sacramento, Calif., office in 2009. The so-called JAX-West office primarily sells mice to California-based biotechnology firms.

But mice sales declined during late 2008 and early 2009, and the organization faced a possible annual loss of up to $15 million.

Hewett said Jackson reacted by trimming the budget, which included laying off 55 staffers and eliminating 55 positions through attrition.

Jackson Lab's operations broke even for the year ending in May 2009, though the organization lost millions in investments.

Today, scientists and professors in Jackson Lab's 36 research programs study the role of genetics in metabolism, cardiovascular function, reproductive biology, birth defects, aging, deafness, obesity and a range of disorders. They also study cancer, HIV-AIDS, lupus, diabetes and other conditions.

Jackson Lab offers education and training programs for scientists and a summer intern program.

Jackson Lab's last president and CEO, Richard Woychik, stepped down in January.

Chief executive duties are shared between Hewett and Robert Braun, associate director and chair of research, while the board searches for a permanent leader, said Jackson Lab spokeswoman Joyce Peterson.

The organization's JAX Mice and Services division sells more than 5,000 varieties of laboratory mice and mice embryos to scientists and research institutions in 50 countries. There are some 1 million live mice at Jackson Lab in Bar Harbor.

Some mice are bred to come down with certain diseases.

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Additional Photos

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The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, which employs 1,250 people in Maine, traces its roots to a camping trip.

  


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