Greenville's big plan aims to put town on world stage

Tiny town is creating center for research, treatment of movement disorders

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GREENVILLE, Pa. -- It's a small town, with a large ambition.

The Borough of Greenville, with a population of 5,900, covers 1.5 square miles in northern Mercer County, an 80-minute drive northwest of Pittsburgh and about the same distance east of Cleveland. The town is home to the Greenville Symphony Orchestra and to Thiel College, a small liberal arts school.

It's also home, more recently, to what is known as the Greenville Neuromodulation Center.

That center, many community members hope, will help Greenville, a town whose recent history of industry and population boom followed by bust is not unlike the story of Pittsburgh, to achieve its new ambition: to become a destination for research into and treatment of movement disorders such as Parkinson's disease, with outreach to patients and doctors not just in the greater Greenville area, but all over the country and the world.

"There's the presumption that a small town can't be the center of scientific revolutions and scientific breakthroughs," said Erwin B. Montgomery Jr., a movement disorders neurologist and researcher who was hired last summer as the medical director for the center.

The presumption is incorrect, he said.

"Just because Greenville is a small town doesn't mean it can't have big ambitions."

Dr. Montgomery, along with representatives from the community and Thiel College, gathered recently in what could be considered the heart of that ambition. The Packard Building, a three-story building on Greenville's Main Street, is the base of operations for the Greenville Neuromodulation Center.

Constructed in 1857, the 21,000-square-foot building has housed businesses ranging from hardware to menswear to beauty shops, but it had fallen into disrepair, said Tim Williams, vice president of the center's board.

Work to transform the building into a home for the Greenville Neuromodulation Center began in 2010. The building's roof and facade have now been restored, while inside, restoration is ongoing. Eventually, Mr. Williams said, the building's features will include a 13-suite inn on the third floor for visiting doctors, patients and their families.

The second floor will house lab space, including physical therapy, speech therapy and neuropsychology labs. And on the first floor will be the administrative offices and a clinic for patients, which both Dr. Montgomery and Mr. Williams said they expect to open in early February.

From the Packard Building, Dr. Montgomery plans to advance the use of and research into a process called deep brain stimulation, in which electrodes are permanently implanted into the brain. A battery-operated device controls the electrodes so that they apply stimulation to specific areas of the brain, a procedure that Dr. Montgomery said can provide "dramatic" relief to common symptoms of Parkinson's disease, such as tremor and stiffness.

Dr. Montgomery, who first became interested in deep brain stimulation more than 15 years ago, said the treatment is promising for patients with a wide variety of disorders, ranging from Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy, stroke, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and eating disorders.

Of the estimated 7 to 10 million people in the world with Parkinson's, only about 1 percent receive deep brain stimulation, Dr. Montgomery said. The procedure, approved for Parkinson's patients by the Food and Drug Administration in 2002, is performed at more than 100 surgical centers in the United States, including in Pittsburgh, he said.

Dr. Montgomery said more training and information about the procedure are needed, a role that Greenville Neuromodulation Center seeks to fill.

"There is so much needless suffering out there because patients are not getting access to this therapy," he said. "So what we want to do is we want to remove the barriers to providing patients with this therapy."

Thiel College: A key factor

In Greenville, Dr. Montgomery expects the surgery itself will be performed at UPMC Horizon, a hospital facility down the street from the Packard Building, with Dr. Montgomery seeing patients before and after surgery at the clinic. A spokeswoman for UPMC Horizon said the two organizations do not have a formal affiliation, but "UPMC Horizon does look forward to potential collaborations."

For the most part, Dr. Montgomery said, his work will involve teaching the procedure to other physicians, both those who travel to Greenville for training courses and those whom Dr. Montgomery guides through the surgery using the center's distance communication products. Dr. Montgomery conducted a training session on deep brain stimulation at the center in the fall.

But why base such an initiative in Greenville?

The answer has a lot to do with Thiel College.

It's a short drive from the Packard Building on Main Street to the campus with 1,100 students and fewer than 60 full-time faculty members. The college is the alma mater of a man named Fred Haer, who grew up in Warren, Pa.

Mr. Haer, who sits on Thiel's board of trustees, is founder of a company called FHC Inc., which is based in Bowdoin, Maine, and makes products for use in neurosurgery, including micro-electrodes. As the company grew, he needed more procedural and technical support for the deep brain stimulation surgery, so in 2005 he started a division called Greenville Neuromodulation Services, which manufactures the frame used in deep brain stimulation surgery and also provides technical and procedural training around the world, said Mr. Williams, who also serves as vice president at FHC Inc. and at Greenville Neuromodulation Services.

Mr. Haer had long had what is known in business as a BHAG -- a big, hairy, audacious goal -- and in 2006 began taking steps to make that goal a reality by creating the Greenville Neuromodulation Center, Mr. Williams said. The purchase of the building and the renovations to date have required an investment of about $1 million, most of it by Mr. Haer with a small amount coming from state and federal grants, Mr. Williams said.

"This is the beginning of Mr. Haer's BHAG," said Mr. Williams, referring to the Packard Building. "He wanted to make a center for excellence in the neuromodulation and research field."

And he also wanted to involve his alma mater.

Thiel, known as a liberal arts college, started its neuroscience major in 2009 and now has about 10 students a year who major in the subject.

Dr. Montgomery is on the faculty, co-teaching a class with a philosophy professor on the ethics of everyday medicine, and a nationwide search is on for another neuroscience expert to join the faculty, said Lynn Franken, Thiel's dean and vice president for academic affairs.

More collaboration between Thiel and the center is planned, including an upcoming speaker series at the college on deep brain stimulation. Eventually, Ms. Franken and Dr. Montgomery said, the center will offer opportunities for neuroscience students to do internships and job shadowing.

Already a positive impact

For now, much of the center's work, ranging from completing the restoration of its building to expanding its training efforts and patient care, lies ahead.

But already, community members said, its presence has had a positive impact in a community that has been under Act 47 state oversight since 2002, when the loss of jobs and departure of industry from the area caused financial distress.

"Even just with the renovation, there are already businesses and organizations that have benefited from it greatly," said Ben Beck, of the Greenville Area Chamber of Commerce.

The center has used local contractors for its renovation, Mr. Williams said. And he said he expects the center, as it grows, to spur further growth in the downtown area.

In July, the center held a "barn raising" event, to show community members the restorations that had been completed and the vision for the building's future. Dr. Montgomery, new to town, thought only a few people would attend. Instead, he said, the building was "packed."

"That's even more amazing when you think about all the things that Greenville has been through," he said. "All the hits, the downturn in the economy. The people could have become angry, resentful. They could turn inward, but they haven't. They've maintained this wonderful generosity of spirit."

People in Greenville see the potential, said Jason Urey, the borough's manager.

"We absolutely want to be out of Act 47," he said. "This business, along with some other ones that are in the area, will really help Greenville move toward our goal of exiting Act 47 in the very near future."

Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707.

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