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Pennington Biomedical Research Center Unwraps Multi-Million Dollar Gift

Released: Saturday, January 24, 2004

BATON ROUGE - With the tug of a large, red ribbon, the head of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center along with LSU system president William Jenkins and “Doc” Pennington's grand daughter untied Saturday a sizeable bow on a gift that nearly doubled the center's research space.

Behind the bow was the center's new Basic Science Laboratory Building, which offers resident researchers the latest in research facility design – a free-flowing environment that encourages collaboration, an open exchange of ideas and the ambiance to inspire creative thinking.

The new building “will house scientists who, I predict, will lead us down many paths which will impact our lives,” said Dr. Claude Bouchard, the executive director who pulled the ribbon. “Who knows what discoveries are to be made here?”

The buildings glass-walled, soaring atrium, skyways and scenic views add the element of style to a laboratory building filled with the highest of high-tech equipment. The facility will allow specialists to peer into and individual cells, genes and molecules to learn how diet, behavior and tissue composition affect health and illness.

At 180,000 square feet, the building rises above the other buildings and is clearly visible from all vantage points around the Perkins Road campus. It was financed and built by the Pennington Medical Foundation Trust, which was created more than two decades ago by the late C.B. “Doc” Pennington to create “the best nutrition research center in the country.”

Helping untie the bow was Mrs. Paula Pennington de la Bretonne, Doc's granddaughter and current chair of the trust. She said her grandfather's dream was to create a center that would “make its mark on health and prevention of disease.”

“Indeed, that dream is relived today.” Pennington said, “We're now standing in a new landmark for our community and for the community of scientists. It signifies hope-- and challenges us to a new dream for these scientists as they continue to search for answers to preventing diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and cancer.”

When fully occupied the new building could house up to 350 researchers and staff in its eight individual laboratories. Each lab contains bench after bench of researchers in the very cutting edge fields of genomics – the study of how genes form and act, proteomics – the study of individual proteins and how they affect the body's functions, and signaling – how cells and organs chemically communicate or “signal” one another in reaction to the environment. Examples of signaling would be the chemical reactions that cause an increase in insulin production due to eating certain types of food, or decrease in blood pressure caused by other foods, or the feeling of “fullness.” Of particular interest is how these signals vary due to genetics or disease.

In addition to the scientific contributions anticipated here, the man in charge of the work in the new building, and one of the men responsible for its design, cited its “economic impact” on Baton Rouge and Louisiana.

“For each dollar the state invests, the center generates three more,” said Dr. David York the head of basic research at the center.

York said all researchers here are required to fund their own work through competitive federal and private research grants. That process often takes some time, he said.

“That's why continued state investment is so important, it allows us to attract and support leading scientists while they become established and start generating their own research funds.”

According to a publication released at the ceremony, the center receives about 20-percent of its annual budget from state allocations and the rest from competitive federal grants, private contracts and donations.

Some of those grants are being used to create three new positions, also announced at the ceremony: The Peggy Pennington Cole Chair in Maternal Biology and Risk of Obesity, funded by the Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Foundation and the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan and named for de la Bretonne’s mother, who was present; the John S. McIlhenny Endowed Chair in Health Wisdom, funded by the Coypu Foundation; and the Marie Edana Corcoran OSF Endowed Chair in Pediatric Obesity and Diabetes, created with a donation made earlier this month by the Our Lady of the Lake Foundation.

Researchers have already begun to move into their new labs, and some are already hard at work. And center directors are already planning their next expansion, a new clinical building which would be devoted to expanding its human diet, nutrition, weight loss and health studies.

“Hold on to your seatbelts,” said President Jenkins, “In the next 5 years, Baton Rouge will become a destination for biologic researchers from around the world.”

The center has achieved in its 15 year history a national reputation as a leading nutrition research center, developing the DASH Diet which was shown in clinical studies there to lower blood pressure and allow patients to avoid medication. Also, researchers there developed the Diabetes Prevention Program – a combination of diet and exercise which could reduce the chance of becoming diabetic by 60 percent among people with elevated blood sugar.

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The Pennington Biomedical Research Center is at the forefront of medical discovery as it relates to understanding the causes of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia. Itis a campus of the Louisiana State University System and conducts basic, clinical and population research. The research enterprise at the Center includes approximately 80 faculty and more than 25 post-doctoral fellows who comprise a network of 50 laboratories supported by lab technicians, nurses, dieticians, and support personnel, and 19 highly specialized core service facilities.  The Center's more than 500 employees perform research activities in state-of-the-art facilities on the 234-acre campus located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.