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Health Center Today, April 5, 2010

Renovations at Cell and Genome Sciences Building Nearing Completion

By David Bauman

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Photos by Kevin Norton

The University of Connecticut is just months away from opening a new research building in Farmington to enhance Connecticut’s role as a leader in innovative high tech research and technology transfer in the areas of stem cell biology, advanced microscopy and imaging, computational biology and genetics.

Especially designed with open labs that flow into each other and office areas located on hallways running between labs, the new Cell and Genomic Sciences Building intends to promote interdisciplinary research among the academic and industry chemists, geneticists, physicists, mathematicians, cell biologists, and computer scientists housed there. This collaborative effort aims to capitalize on the power of different areas of scientific expertise to revolutionize the practice of medicine.

"Our goal is to maximize the state’s investment in stem cell research by establishing an infrastructure to support scientists in their quest of turning discoveries at the bench into therapies for diseases such as autism and cancer and to advance the field of regenerative medicine," says Dr. Marc Lalande, senior associate dean for research planning and coordination at the UConn Health Center and director of UConn’s Stem Cell Institute, as well as professor and chairman of the medical school’s genetics and developmental biology department. "This is an unprecedented opportunity for us."

Purchased by UConn with Board of Trustees’ approval in 2007, a former research and testing facility at 400 Farmington Avenue – across the street from UConn’s Health Center campus – has been undergoing a $52 million transformation and is to be equipped with the latest technologies for studying cells and their genomes. The new 117,000 square foot building is expected to open in July 2010.

The renovated building will house research laboratories, offices, a 100-seat auditorium, cafeteria, and incubator space for businesses eager to commercialize stem cell science. Designed by the Boston laboratory architecture firm Goody Clancy, the renovations will meet the requirements of a LEED Silver rating, according to project manager Kevin Norton.

The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green building rating system – developed and administered by the U.S. Green Building Council – is the industry standard for measuring building sustainability.

Currently more than 100 construction workers are busy completing the mechanical and electrical systems, installing finishes, laboratory casework, interior window assemblies, and skylights over the corridors of the one-story structure.

Opportunities for Collaboration

"The overriding intent is to provide sufficient internal transparency to allow the entire research community in the building to interact, while providing natural light to internal spaces," says Norton.

Scientists in the building will be involved in a wide spectrum of research projects, including the design and construction of new laser-based microscopes, computer simulation of living processes inside cells, and sequencing of human and animal genomes, says Lalande. Being located close to UConn’s Health Center will support the goal of translating basic research findings to clinical trials, he adds.

Two corridors lead off the entrance lobby of the building to private areas dispersed around the facility for focused research.

Three major research programs will be re-located from the Health Center to the new facility: the UConn Stem Cell Institute (UCSCI), the R.D. Berlin Center for Cell Analysis and Modeling (CCAM), and the Department of Genetics and Developmental Biology. Together these three programs include about 180 scientists and their staff.

  • The UCSCI was established after the state, in 2005, enacted legislation to fund stem cell research through the Connecticut State Stem Cell Advisory Committee. Over the first three rounds of competition for the state funds, UConn researchers won $20.8 million – the majority of awards granted. The funding supports more than 32 laboratories at both the Farmington and Storrs campuses. UConn scientists have submitted 44 applications for the state’s fourth grant competition round, which begins next month.

UConn has spent more than $1 million to equip the human embryonic stem cell core facility that trains researchers and lab workers from around the state on lab techniques for stem cell research; 114 have been trained to date.

Recently, staff of the core facility developed induced pluripotent human stem cells, or iPS cells, which behave like embryonic stem cells and increasingly are being used by researchers to generate in vitro models of human disease.

The on-site presence of the UCSCI and the stem cell core facility will provide both hands-on expertise and resources to the wide range of investigators in the new building.

  • CCAM’s multidisciplinary team uses cutting-edge imaging, microscopy, and computational modeling to more accurately analyze living cells. CCAM has also developed a computer software and database system – the Virtual Cell – that allows researchers to construct computational models of cells, perform simulations, and analyze the results of those simulations to better understand cell physiology. More than 2,000 scientists from around the world have used the Virtual Cell to carry out simulations.

To handle these simulations (some are quite large), the new Center will house CCAM’s High Performance Computing Facility, which also provides computer support to the CCAM microscopy facility and other research projects of individual UConn faculty members.

  • Equipped with $1.1 million of state-of-the-art technology to read entire genomes, the translational genomics core facility will have all the equipment necessary for DNA analysis and sequencing, gene expression analysis, genotyping, and the associated bioinformatics infrastructure to facilitate data analysis.

The new building will afford the 17 scientists from the Department of Genetics and Developmental Biology moving there the opportunity to work with their colleagues in ways that haven’t been possible before, and to use these new tools to isolate and study rare cells.

Having these programs in the same building along with researchers applying a broad range of cutting-edge approaches will significantly speed up cell research at UConn, Lalande says.

The potential of the new facility and continued stem cell funding by the state has already helped recruit two new faculty with expertise in stem cell biology and nanomedicine who are expected to join the new building’s research community later this summer, he adds.

"We’re thinking about the intersection of cell biology, genetics, and computer science, and other disciplines that inform those areas," he says.

Researchers will also find it easier to communicate with each other about their work, Lalande says, fostering collaborations that could lead to new insights into cell biology: "This building is designed to drive cross-pollination of scientific ideas to a new level."

From Lab to Marketplace

The new building will also expand the work of UConn’s Office of Technology Commercialization, including the Technology Incubation Program – UConn’s business incubator – by providing offices, conference rooms, and laboratories for six start-up biotechnology companies.

An architect's rendering of 400 Farmington Avenue

An architect's rendering of 400 Farmington Avenue.

"While our scientists may generate the next stem cell breakthrough, to bring them to market there must be a group of people with the skills not only to start a company, but to help it grow," says Rita Zangari, interim director of the Office of Technology Commercialization and executive director of the Technology Incubation Program.

The new building has already helped to attract two bioscience companies, Zangari says. One company seeks to use stem cells in bone cement products, while the other – relocating to Connecticut from Massachusetts – is conducting research using stem cells extracted from tooth pulp for therapeutic use in combating degenerative diseases.

"Having the resources in place for our researchers and their industry partners to move discoveries from the lab to the marketplace fosters a climate in which ideas are easily exchanged and partnerships are developed," Zangari says. "Collaboration is the essence of UConn’s power to generate new discoveries and then build companies and jobs around them."