5/21/2013
Merck Donates Valuable Research Equipment
Gift will double metabolic research capacity

In an unusual grant that has been called both fortuitous and magnanimous by its recipient, Utpal Pajvani, MD, PhDMerck and Co., one of the nation’s largest pharmaceuticals, gifted the young, talented researcher at Columbia University’s Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center with a $500,000 piece of equipment, ”that will double our capacity to do important metabolic research,” said Dr. Pajvani. “This is a one-time, very, very special circumstance. When I tell people this story—they have never heard of such a thing. And that’s because it’s really quite a magnanimous gesture on Merck’s part.” 

Receiving this grant, says Dr. Pajvani, is a story about unbiased, collaborative research between industry and academia and how his lab at the Berrie Center came into possession of coveted machinery, commonly referred to as “metabolic cages.” Said, Dr. Pajvani about his new acquisition from Merck:  “This is for mouse work. It measures food intake, locomotor activity, and energy expenditure and will help us figure out many things including why some mice get obese and why some mice are protected from obesity. Mice are very powerful tools for research because they can be genetically manipulated to lose weight, lose fat mass and be less hungry. If we can find the right pathways to target, we can design drugs that will allow people to do the same.”

This week, for the first time, Dr. Pajvani talked about his equipment grant from Merck and what it will mean for metabolism researchers at the Berrie Center—and throughout Columbia University:

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You mentioned that the new equipment would improve productivity quite significantly. Please explain: 

We actually have a piece of equipment like this, but it’s about 10 years old and it doesn’t have all the tools that we need. Since we, at the Berrie Center, have the only one piece of equipment for all of Columbia University, there is about a 6-month waiting list to use the piece of equipment. If you wanted to sign up today, you wouldn’t have access until November. It is such a useful tool for metabolism research that everyone wants to use.

Since it’s a one-time only grant, how did it come about?

I was at a scientific conference on diabetes and obesity, complaining to a colleague of mine who works at Merck that there was a 6-month wait to use the metabolic cages. I mentioned that we have these really interesting mice that weigh the same as their brothers and sisters—but due to this mutation we’ve created, they have less fat, they’re healthier mice. 'We would really like to put them into these Metabolic Cages to figure out if they’re burning more energy for the same amount of food intake, or are they eating less.’ I told her. Meanwhile, Merck had two pieces of this very fancy piece of equipment. She thought about our conversation and suggested to Merck that they gift the extra one to my lab. It was just fortuitous.

How would you describe the relationship between pharma and academia? 

We work collaboratively, even though we do very similar things. Pharma relies on academia to do a lot of the early heavy lifting. They need academia to validate targets for developing new drugs independently, and our job really isn’t drug discovery. Our job is to think broadly and creatively to figure out which drug targets might be there. Domenico Accili, MD, for example, is working with a large pharmaceutical company to try to develop a Fox01 inhibitor for our gut insulin program that will have a major impact on the treatment of type 1 diabetes. In truth, nothing makes people in academia happier than when our work leads to some sort of great clinical outcome.  So, we need pharma to make the drugs, and they need us to do the research and development.

I understand your new Metabolism Cages are quite large, and that you arranged to have them moved from Merck in New Jersey to the Berrie Center. Sounds like it was another form of heavy lifting. 

The equipment not only retails for $500,000 but it is frighteningly heavy. There were two giant cabinets which each weighed at least 1,000 lbs. I got an estimate to move it for $4,000, which I thought was absurd. So I recruited Anthony Ferrante, MD, PhD, and two other scientists from the lab and we loaded it into a U-haul. We got it to Columbia for $200.  While there was great potential for injury—from a weightlifting perspective, scientists aren’t known for being body builders—no one actually got hurt.

Congratulations on the gift and getting it here. It says a lot about you, your work and your colleagues.

We are always thinking about how we can get the resources we need to do the work we need to do. 

To learn more about Dr. Pajvani, and to support his work, contact the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center Development Office at 917-484-0090.