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Lab Assistance

UTHSC's Translational Science Research Center gives health investigators a new home.

Artist rendering Courtesy Horrell Group Architects, Handak Bobo Group, and UTHSC

The pit stretches across a few acres, running right up
 to the sidewalk at the corner of Union Avenue and Manassas. Cement retaining walls and what looks like an elevator shaft have started to emerge, the first signs that this is in fact a building site and not an Olympic-size swimming pool in the making.

It’s the latest pit to be dug in Memphis’ Medical District, which has already seen the slow rise of the UT-Baptist Research Park and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s (UTHSC) Cancer Research Building. Nearby, The Med recently announced major construction plans for its campus as well.

Dr. Kennard Brown, Executive Vice Chair and Chief Operations Officer of UTHSC, says it’s nice to think that construction projects beget more construction projects, but in this case it’s merely coincidental that Memphis’ medical institutions have chosen to invest in new research facilities all at the same time.

“It would be nice if that was true, but it’s not really the case,” says Brown. “Each project meets specific needs.”

In the case of UTHSC and the pit at Union and Manassas, that means a $49 million Translational Science Research Center with four stories and 135,000 square feet of space, which administrators hope will meet a national benchmark in state-of-the-art research. It is slated for completion in fall 2013.

“Research needs were changing,” says Brown. “The other problem we had as an institution was that the majority of our research space was relatively antiquated. There had not been an infusion of capital resources in this campus to bring us into the contemporary state of basic science research, besides the Cancer Center, in probably more than 20 years.”

Brown doesn’t mean to knock UTHSC’s current and ongoing research, but he noted that the century-old buildings currently housing their research labs reflect a time when studies were conducted in relative seclusion and labs all had locking doors. And, well, they are small.

“Much of the university’s old lab space was old-fashioned,” says Dr. David Stern, executive dean of the College of Medicine at UTHSC, who’s been at UT just under a year.

“The style of laboratories now is open laboratories in which there is freedom for multiple people to interact. They used to be modules of 400 to 600 square feet, and they were all locked. I could have one with my name on it. That’s how I started my career in a little module at Columbia many years ago. But the open style allows for greater communication and more people to work together.”

It was about five years ago when UTHSC started reexamining its lab space needs. Renovating the current lab buildings would have been costly, time-consuming, distracting to researchers, and may very likely have skewed results.

“The idea of renovating a building often has to do with the amount of asbestos in the building and other structural issues,” says Stern. “Lab buildings have to have very good, exact conditions. They have to keep things at the right temperature. Sometimes there are compressors or freezers. The HVAC is a problem. The IT — the ability to develop wireless and other kinds of networks in the building — is also an issue.”

Even some high-powered microscopes can be sensitive to vibrations created by hammering and drilling. So instead, UTHSC will renovate the current lab buildings into office space.

Stern explains that the word “translational” in the new building’s title means “interdisciplinary” for the layman. Instead of closed projects taking place side by side in tiny labs whose occupants work mostly with members of their own departments, the new center will be so open inside that dentists, pharmacologists, cancer researchers, and cardiovascular specialists will plan joint research projects and share information fluidly.

Skyways will be built on the second, third, and fourth floors to connect with the Cancer Research Center next door.

There will be a “lab bench to bedside” theme to research conducted in the building, meaning investigators will try to find out not only how certain molecules participate in illness or health, but how to apply what they learn directly to patients.

The building was paid for through the sale of state bonds. That money will be paid back through payments written into future research grants.

But if it sounds like a pretty penny to spend for more open lab spaces, Stern says there’s another big reason for building the center.

“The university needs spaces like that if it’s going to be able to lure first-rate investigators,” says Stern.

Case in point is Dr. Jon McCullers, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at UTHSC, Pediatrician-in-Chief at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, and affiliate member of Department of Infectious Diseases at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

“Dr. McCullers is a world-class guy,” says Brown. “He’s got a team of 15 basic science investigators that he can populate the [Translational Science Research Building] with. Three institutions went together and created a package of about $50 million to recruit this guy because he’s that good. You have no opportunities to entice them to come be a part of anything without adequate facilities.”

“Le Bonheur and the UTHSC Department of Pediatrics want to improve the academic output and the research output of the department,” says McCullers. “We have the goal of being a top 10 academic center nationally as a children’s hospital. That’s going to require recruitment of physician scientists and clinician scientists. They will have space needs, and you want to have the most modern and attractive and useful space available to them.”

For some, says Brown, space is the top consideration for prospective investigators.

“The first thing a researcher will ask is, where is my lab?” says Brown. “They’re almost oblivious to whatever number you say for their salary. To be competitive, you need brand-new, contemporary research space.”

Much of the research conducted in the new space will follow the community health needs of Memphis, namely those that affect the cardiovascular system.

“When you look at the health landscape in Memphis for children, it’s mostly issues around health disparities and limited access to care,” says McCullers. “To me, the biggest issues are pediatric obesity, pediatric asthma, and developmental disabilities.

“We’re planning to build three large programs or centers around these issues and recruit scientists from all over the nation to do research, so the Translational Science Research Center is going to be a big draw for that.”

And that, says Brown, means a direct impact on the people of Memphis.

“We’ve got a living laboratory right in this community,” says Brown.

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