Labs Without Walls New cancer, genetics research complex tears down barriers

Cancer and Genetics Research Complex Cancer and Genetics Research Complex

Leave it to an anatomist to describe a building as if it were flesh and blood.

As it sits near the intersection of Mowry Road and Gale Lemerand Drive, the 280,000-square-foot Cancer and Genetics Research Complex easily lives up to its billing as the largest research structure on the University of Florida campus.

The concrete and brick skin of the five-story research wing of the UF Shands Cancer Center is plainly visible from Archer Road. Facing north toward Lake Alice, a six-story wing topped by a greenhouse contains the Genetics Institute.

It looks like it uses every bit of the 77 million pounds of concrete that went into its construction - enough concrete to build a sidewalk from Gainesville to Daytona Beach.

But despite its substantial appearance, "syncytium" is the word that comes to mind for Stephen Sugrue, Ph.D., associate director of basic science for the Cancer Center and chairman of the medical school's department of anatomy and cell biology.

"Certain cells have no boundaries or membranes between them," he said, explaining the term. "Inside this building are labs without barriers."

Unlike conventional research space, which often consists of long corridors punctuated by doorways into rooms, the Cancer and Genetics Research Complex contains modules - rows of lab benches and common work areas, but relatively few walls. With no "next door" to speak of, there are no scientists down the hall - they're already there.

"The people who designed this building did so to maximize cross-fertilization of different groups," Sugrue said. "The idea is to put people next to each other who aren't identical in their approaches, but who have the same goals."

He is not moving into the new building, but Sugrue was an early practitioner of the no-walls philosophy. In 1997 he was given the go-ahead to initiate an open lab environment in his research space in the Basic Science Building by then-College of Medicine Dean and Vice President for Health Affairs Kenneth Berns, M.D., Ph.D., who today directs the UF Genetics Institute.

"We're bringing together all kinds of scientists who work on plants and animals and people," Berns said. "The notion is if the investigators working in these areas are cheek by jowl, so to speak, they'll talk to each other.

Between the two sides of the building, we're going to have about 60 to 70 faculty. It will be an incredible aggregation of intellectual firepower."

In a sense, with the research building about to be "nucleated" with scientists in May, an experiment in how to hasten new discoveries is about to begin. The hypothesis is that a large, diverse group of investigators working within sight of one another will produce data that will change the world.

If cures and innovations emerge in the time it took for the research building to progress from an idea to an actual physical address, it will be short work.

A Common Language

It was 1997 and Berns' idea for a genetics institute was gradually gathering momentum.

From mice to maize, UF scientists were immersed in genes, working in highly specialized subsets of agriculture, medicine, botany and other disciplines. What was lacking was a mechanism to align genetics scientists at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Health Science Center colleges and beyond.

Fortunately, these investigators speak the same language.

"In the beginning, we pushed forward against a certain amount of skepticism about this notion of a university-wide institute," Berns said. "But what we research all has DNA. It all operates on the universal genetic code. It all has recombination. It made sense. It is diverse subject matter, but there is a tremendous crossover in the fundamentals. Eventually people from different parts of the university saw what we were doing as a positive thing."

At the same time, the university was sharpening its efforts to become nationally competitive in cancer research, Berns said. A research building was deemed essential. And because cancer is a process that involves the interaction between genes and their environment, it was becoming increasingly apparent that cancer and genetics researchers were natural allies.

The idea synthesized to combine cancer and genetics research within a single building. To further strengthen the arrangement, plans were made to take testing and analyses operations of the Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology Research, or ICBR, and consolidate many of them within the research complex.

In that event, the research complex's biotech infrastructure would be a force in its own right. Scientists would have access to state-of-the-art instrumentation, training and expertise. The thought was, with the industrial-scale genome-sequencing, genetic analyses and other core services of the ICBR at arm's length, synergies would explode.

Hunton Brady Architects in Orlando was selected to design the building and Ellenzweig Associates Architects in Boston was selected as lab planners. Turner/PPI Joint Venture was named construction manager. Design work started in June 2002 and construction started in December 2003, with costs set at $84.5 million.

The challenge that remained was to create a building that would allow scientists to look at cancer and genetics with razor-sharp focus.

Plotting Cancer's Demise

The American Cancer Society projects that more than a half-million Americans will die of cancer this year. An additional 1.4 million people will be diagnosed with the disease.

Yet, despite these formidable numbers, measurable progress is being made in the decades-long fight to eliminate cancer as a major health threat.

No one knows cancer is in retreat better than W. Stratford May Jr., M.D., Ph.D., director of the UF Shands Cancer Center, who wants UF in the thick of the pursuit for a cure.

"Mortality continues to decrease for cancers like breast cancer and others," May said. "As advances are made, we are motivated to work even harder to find a cure. But we need to dig deeper to find the root causes of the disease. It takes a rational understanding of cancer to develop new and novel treatments and drugs. For that to happen, we need to take advantage of a critical mass of trained people who are involved in an exchange of ideas."

May is counting on the UF Shands Cancer Center research wing to fuel the momentum that has caused, for the first time since the 1930s, the death rate from all cancers to decrease in proportion to the growth and aging of the population.

"We hope to bring together a subset of researchers who will expand collaborations and funding opportunities," May said. "There is tremendous excitement about a programmatically focused building for cancer and genetics."

May is particularly interested in translational research - the kind that quickly results in better patient care. The Judith S. and Jerry W. Davis Cancer Center, which is literally across the street from the cancer research wing, is a continual reminder that discoveries must be easily adaptable for clinical uses.

Work is already proceeding in that direction, Sugrue said. Researchers on the second floor of the cancer wing, for example, are concentrating on experimental therapeutics. For example, Arun Srivastava, Ph.D., chief of the division of cellular and molecular therapy, works on ways to use the adeno-associated virus to correct cell mutations. Dietmar Siemann, Ph.D., a professor in the department of radiation oncology at the UF Shands Cancer Center, uses a combination of cellular approaches to find ways to attack blood vessels that provide nutrition to cancerous tumors.

Both wings of the building are connected by a perpendicular five-level common area, which makes it look like a monumental offset "H" from above. Appropriately enough, the cancer epigenetics researchers are across from plant epigeneticists.

"Scientists have been studying epigenetics in plants for years," Sugrue said. "Only recently has epigenetics been implicated in cancer biology. We hope going across the bridge between the two wings will literally mean we're bridging the gap."

Rooms for Growth

The genetics faculty in the botany department of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences will gain much-needed access to strictly experimental greenhouse and growth chamber space, according to George Bowes, Ph.D., a professor and chairman of botany.

Of course the department has its own greenhouses, but much of that space is used for teaching purposes. Nor are those areas quite like the transgenic plant rooms in the new building, where scientists will work with DNA-altered plants.

About four UF botanists are expected to move into the genetics wing, including Sixue Chen, Ph.D., who studies protein mechanisms in plants.

"One of the things he is firing up to do is look at proteomics," Bowes said. "The techniques he has expertise in that he uses with plants also apply to animals and humans. Now we have a synergy possible not just with plant people but also with people at the Cancer Center and Genetics Institute. In fact, plants he currently works with may have anti-carcinogenic properties. His proximity to scientists studying human medical conditions may be helpful."

Elsewhere, from his area on the third floor of the genetics wing, John Davis, Ph.D., an associate professor of forest biotechnology at IFAS, will be able to look north toward Lake Alice and be within walking distance to Fifield and Newins-Ziegler halls, where a good deal of IFAS research takes place.

"New ideas, grants proposals and new projects all come from being elbow-to-elbow on a daily basis," said Davis, who leads the UF effort to identify genes that control disease resistance in loblolly pine, one of the most-planted commercial timber species in the South. "Some things you can't replace. Daily contact is one of them."

Meanwhile, a group of faculty will devote their energy to bioinformatics, the science of computer data management that allows researchers to make sense of vast amounts of information.

"The bioinformatics section of the genetics wing is on the first floor, which might be considered the foundation of the building," Davis said. "Considering bioinformatics - being able to handle large volumes of information - is the foundation for modern genetics research, it's a fitting place for that activity."

With more than 60 investigators about to occupy the building, there's no doubt the data will come.

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John Pastor

UF&Shands Communications

John Pastor oversees News & Publications for UF&Shands, the University of Florida Academic Health Center. He and his team tell the stories surrounding the research, education and patient care activities...Read More