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MIIR gets a reboot; new director of MU research institution named

Nov. 29, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- When the Marshall Institute for Interdisciplinary Research (MIIR) was launched in 2008, it was touted as an economic development engine that would not only establish the university as a research institution but also create jobs and churn out patents.

Projections had the institute producing 1,100 jobs within its first decade of existence, and more than doubling that by year 20.

In theory, that could still happen. But making MIIR work has, by and large, been a slower process.

Eric Kmiec, who was hired as the MIIR's first director and endowed research professor, stepped down in 2011 to go back to the University of Delaware. His wife, Jennifer, who had served as Marshall's associate vice president for economic development, resigned as well.

The research institute has still been quietly chugging along under the interim directorship of John Maher, with researchers continuing work in biotechnology in fields like nanotechnology.

Now, more than two years after Kmiec left MIIR, the institute has a new director in Zijian Xie, a native of China who has spent the past 30 years as a research scientist, most recently at the University of Toledo where he was the co-director of the M.D./Ph.D. program, while also serving as a professor of pharmacology, physiology and medicine.

Xie has come into the new position at Marshall with a down-to-earth approach to research and business.

"The realistic goal is to focus on what we have, and gradually add people in two to three years," Xie said. "In five years, hopefully we'll have 15 to 20 people here."

Xie holds international patents and patent applications on seven medical inventions resulting from his research. He has served as principal investigator, project leader or co-investigator on National Institutes of Health-funded projects totaling more than $10 million, and has established active international collaborations with total funding of more than $1 million, according to a statement from Marshall University. He also has been involved with the creation of two spin-off companies from his research.

That is exactly the kind of track record MIIR has been looking for.

"In my first meeting with (MU President) Dr. (Stephen) Kopp, I was very impressed with his vision," Xie said. "Discovery, science, it's what we do to lay a foundation for the future. The translation of research and converting lab discoveries into something which is of commercial use and has an economic impact is very important as well."

The MIIR program was funded with a $15 million investment from the state in 2008 through the establishment of a trust fund referred to as the "Bucks for Brains" program.

Marshall could only collect the $15 million if it raised a matching amount through donations. The university finally hit the $15 million mark in January of this year when Allied Realty Company made a donation of $150,000.

Not all of the money is tied to MIIR specifically, but funds research throughout Marshall University's various departments.

The focus of Xie's research for most of his career has been centered on an enzyme commonly referred to as the "sodium-potassium pump" because it controls the levels of potassium and sodium entering and exiting cells. This pumping process transports nutrients like glucose and amino acids into cells and maintains the electrical charge within cells, which is particularly important in controlling normal functions in the kidney and heart.

Xie, through his research, is trying to develop new treatments for cancer, heart and kidney disease.

Much of his work also focuses on finding the active ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine that actually work, and finding the levels of that ingredient that would need to go into a drug to make it functional and marketable.

Xie already has a working relationship with Dr. Joseph Shapiro, MU's relatively new dean of the medical school.

"Coming here I could continue my collaboration with Dr. Shapiro, and that helps MIIR to go out into other parts of the university and work with people," Xie said. "If we're closed off, we're never going to get anywhere. MIIR serves as a platform to expand research across the university."

Maher will now take on a role of finding resources for MIIR as it continues to grow.

"What excites me the most is, going forward, through collaborations with other researchers and the school of medicine, they can develop things we can't even think of right now," Maher said. "One of the resources available in research is time. The focus is on giving them the opportunity to do amazing things."

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