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UCI's Beckman Institute, USC Team Up on Laser Project

March 30, 1989|JEAN DAVIDSON | Times Staff Writer

The Beckman Laser Institute, a private medical research organization closely affiliated with UC Irvine, has entered into partnership with the University of Southern California to compete for a $15-million federal grant to develop a new laser technology.

USC officials confirmed that there have been discussions about relocating the institute, which now leases property on the UCI campus, to Los Angeles. However, they said, institute work could continue at both sites if USC beats out six other universities seeking the U.S. Department of Defense grant.

The Beckman institute's participation "helps tremendously" USC's chances of winning the grant, according to Pablo Valencia, a USC biomedical engineer and coordinator of the project.

Premature Speculation

UCI Chancellor Jack Peltason said, however, that speculation that the institute or its director, UCI medical professor Dr. Michael Berns, might move is premature.

"We treasure the relationship with the Beckman Institute and anticipate that it would continue in the future," he said. "As far as I know, Dr. Berns is going to stay here."

Berns declined comment Wednesday on negotiations for a move or a satellite operation at USC.

"I'm a faculty member at UCI, and I'm not moving my program right now," Berns said. He said it is up to the nonprofit institute's board of directors "to decide whether it is in the best interest of the institute to move or to stay."

Efforts to reach board president Dr. Arnold Beckman were unsuccessful Wednesday. Beckman, the multimillionaire founder of Beckman Instruments, has contributed $5 million to the institute since 1982.

Star Wars Technology

The proposed USC project is for a free electron laser, which operates at a higher intensity and broader frequency than existing ones, making a single laser potentially useful in treating a wide variety of illnesses, according to Robert Spears, assistant dean of clinical affairs at USC. The technology, which grew out of Star Wars weapons research, theoretically could be used to kill brain cancer cells without harming delicate surrounding tissue or to destroy the AIDS virus in the blood supply, according to USC officials.

Research with the new technology at USC depends on funding, Spears said, and a decision on the federal grant is not expected for several months.

UCI sources said USC's overture is aimed at recruiting Berns, and they expressed doubt that the institute or staff members would follow him. News leaks about the negotiations come at a time when Peltason has demanded an accounting of donations to the institute and compensation paid to UCI faculty and staff who work there.

Berns, a nationally-recognized pioneer in medical use of lasers, is a professor of surgery and cell biology. He founded the Beckman Laser Institute in 1982 and remains the leading force there. The institute treats patients with cancer, vascular disease, eye problems and other ailments, and recently has performed widely publicized surgeries on exotic animals, including a boa constrictor.

Private Donations

Although the institute was built with private donations and is governed by its own board, it is staffed by UCI employees, and all research conducted there is done under the auspices of the University of California. Under a lease-back agreement with UCI, the institute must operate a research center on the Irvine campus for 30 years or forfeit its building and much of the equipment inside. The agreement, however, would not prevent the institute from operating a second facility elsewhere, UCI officials said.

"From what we can tell, this is a serious recruitment by USC," according to one informed source who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Michael (Berns) has threatened to leave a number of times before and never has. But the institute is another issue--if they leave, they walk away from the building and the great majority of the equipment in it. If this is a bluff on Michael's part to get the chancellor off his back, then the bluff may be called."

The source said that Berns recently angered Peltason when he formed a separate fund-raising group of wealthy supporters for the institute without UCI's participation. Peltason has proposed adding two paragraphs to the agreement governing the relationship between the university and the research center. The amendments would require financial reporting to the university, according to the source.

The institute has raised $15 million over the last 6 years, including a $5-million endowment. Although Beckman is considered likely to take his dollars wherever Berns goes, university officials downplayed speculation that other donors would also be swayed.

The only existing free electron laser is located at Stanford University, but USC officials said the addition of the Beckman Institute's technological expertise makes USC the West Coast favorite if federal officials mete out dollars with an eye to geographic balance.

In addition to USC, finalists for the federal grant money are Duke University, which recently recruited the developer of the Stanford laser, the University of Utah, Northwestern University, Baylor University and Vanderbilt University.

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