The Jackson Laboratory’s incoming president and CEO, Dr. Lon Cardon, said he is excited to see what the future holds for its Farmington campus.
“My goal has always been exactly the same, and it is to find the genes that cause disease and then do something with that information to improve health. That’s it. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,” Cardon said.
Cardon, who has built a long career as an academic and researcher, will begin his new position at Jackson Laboratory (JAX), a Maine-based independent biomedical research institution, on Nov. 29, succeeding Edison Liu, M.D., who will step down after ten years.
Farmington is the home of The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, where researchers focus on human genomics. Located next to the UConn Health campus, JAX Genomic Medicine opened in 2014. It facilitates clinical collaboration with the state’s universities and hospitals, according to JAX.
In May 2020, the National Human Genome Research Institute awarded UConn Health and The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine a $1.2 million grant to train students in genome sciences.
Liu will continue to serve as a JAX professor studying the functional genomics of cancer with a focus on breast cancer, according to officials there.
Cardon praised Liu’s leadership in selecting Farmington as a location for this work.
First, it provided a much-needed outlet to Boston, where many young people go to study genetics and start their own companies, Cardon said.
“But it’s only so big, and its seams have burst and I think that it was an inspired choice to build something right here in Connecticut and hopefully we can continue that journey to attract the next generation of talent into what is really the next generation of science right there,” Cardon said.
He added that the facility’s location next to the UConn School of Medicine was not an accident. “The medical school is exactly what is needed for this type of science, for the applied genetics,” Cardon said. “Not just find the genes that cause disease but take those findings and try and improve the course of disease and ultimately find treatments or diagnostics.”
There are 450 employees at the Farmington site, with a total of 2,600 employees across the organization’s three locations – Bar Harbor, Maine, and Sacramento, California, being the other two.
There is continued growth at the site in Connecticut, but Cardon said there is only so much physical space to contain that growth. However, he is looking forward to discussing the matter with state officials sometime in the future.
“One of the things I’m excited about discussing is, can we develop plans to continue that trajectory,” Cardon said.
Cardon is coming to JAX from BioMarin Pharmaceutical Inc., which develops and commercializes biopharmaceuticals for rare diseases. He started there in 2017, and now serves as its chief scientific strategy officer. Much of his early career was spent as a senior academic in the United Kingdom and the U.S., first as professor of Bioinformatics at the University of Oxford and then as professor of Biostatistics at the University of Washington and co-chair of the Herbold Bioinformatics Program at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
Cardon said what attracted him to JAX was the ability to work across a number of disciplines, starting with its mouse work originating in Maine – JAX uses mice models to research the effects of diseases – and expanding to genomics in Connecticut. While great strides have been made in cancer research and other rare diseases, Cardon said he would like to see more success in the areas of more common afflictions such as Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
“Genetics hasn’t yet realized its potential, and I think the unique contribution that JAX has is a real opportunity to improve things where others have not and that’s what drew me here,” Cardon said.
“But I really do think where genetics has not yet delivered is in the application of the research,” Cardon said. He said technological advances and access to vast numbers of patients across the globe have resulted in some impressive findings in genetics over the past 12 years, providing for more opportunities for the work being done in Connecticut.
He cited research currently happening in the U.K., where 500,000 people have agreed to participate in a genome sequencing project which researchers hope will provide ways to diagnose, treat and prevent illnesses such as cancer and dementia.
“Those types of things coupled with technologies are opening up great new opportunities to translate those findings. That’s where Connecticut could play a real role,” Cardon said. “You got the right scientific caliber and capabilities sitting there on site that one could grow over time and it’s sitting next to a medical school which is where the people and the patients you need to interact with are.”
He said that can lead to the actual advancement of medicine, not just basic research.
He said seeing research through the eyes of the patient has been part of his journey that is beyond just the scientific.
“We do all our research and try to advance medicines but there’s nothing like rare diseases where you are actually saving children’s lives to make it all worthwhile every single day,” Cardon said. “I am absolutely committed.”