Top researchers wanted in Sioux Fallsby Cara Hetland, Minnesota Public Radio
South Dakota has suffered a brain drain for years. The brightest students all too often leave the state's schools and companies for work elsewhere. Now there's a plan to grow the biomedical research field and keep students from leaving home.
Sioux Falls, S.D. — There are two pictures in Ben Perryman's office. One shows an empty field off the interstate in Sioux Falls, and the other is a drawing of the future -- a cluster of buildings filled with laboratories and medical researchers doing cutting-edge work.
Perryman, vice president of medical research at Sanford Health, says South Dakota is trailing the rest of the nation when it comes to medical research. So he'll oversee a remarkable transformation to bring new research work to Sioux Falls.
According to Perryman, the planned expansion is a dream come true for scientists.
"Scientists are usually attracted to an opportunity to build their own research program, to expand it, make it larger, and maybe try things they haven't done before," says Perryman.
Sanford Health is teaming with the University of South Dakota medical school to collaborate on the project. Perryman says a hospital-driven research program works differently than university-based programs.
"We move faster, and we are in the position where we have hard dollars to invest in these programs," says Perryman.
Sanford Health hospital is named after South Dakota philanthropist T. Denny Sanford. His $400 million donation is the push behind a dramatic health care expansion in Sioux Falls.
Ben Perryman says research is slow to grow because is hasn't been a priority. Economic development groups haven't targeted businesses in the biomedical research field, and South Dakota's colleges and universities are teaching institutions -- not research facilities.
Despite that, there are research projects going on in South Dakota. There's work in genetics and diabetes research, and projects looking at how cells react when a heart is damaged.
Melody Scott runs experiments in one of several labs focusing on cardiovascular research. Long plastic tubes and glass beakers line the lab tables, where researchers study what happens to a heart after a heart attack.
"What happens is your myocytes are very long and skinny and rectangular. After an injury, they shorten up and become very square," says Scott, "which causes your heart ... to be a ball, which makes it very inefficient. So they're looking on a cellular level why these myocytes remodel."
The lead researcher for this project is Dr. Stephen Armstrong. He moved to South Dakota three years ago for the opportunity to run his own lab.
"This is basic research, and you're really trying to examine the mechanisms that lead to these disease processes," says Armstrong. "What we're hoping is that can be translated to the pharmacies, and they can develop those cures."
Armstrong's hope is that those cures will mean new drugs based on his research. But there are no drug companies based in South Dakota.
Patrick Kelly, vice president for Government Affairs Biotechnology Industry Organization, says to become competitive South Dakota needs to move beyond basic research. He says companies that develop research-based product lines need to be based in South Dakota.
Kelly says it'll take a partnership between state economic development, the universities and the hospitals to make that happen. In the end, Kelly says the goal should be to provide a place for college graduates to work.
"You've got to build an indigenous industry cluster there to keep your brightest students. And that feeds on itself," says Kelly. "The more people that stay, and the more the cluster grows, the more attention it gets from outside the area, the more likely you'll be successful."
For instance, Kelly says South Dakota is known for its bio-agricultural research because that has developed over time. Over time, if the state is successful at recruiting high-profile researchers, others will come.
Kelly says there is a buzz in the med-tech industry about Sanford's $400 million gift. Kelly's advice is to develop some research programs that are home-grown.
"Don't look outside the state or outside the country for immediate opportunities. Look inside the state and say, 'What can we do inside the state to realize our objectives for the bio-science industry?'" says Kelly.
South Dakota has suffered a brain drain for years. The brightest students all too often leave the state's schools and companies for work elsewhere.
Money, even $400 million, can't buy a reputation. But it can build new facilities, equip research labs and pay to bring the very best to Sioux Falls and keep them there.
- Morning Edition, 10/31/2007, 7:51 a.m.