By Laura Bonetta
June 15, 2003 | MCI and Nextel will soon have a new high-tech neighbor. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the $10-billion philanthropy founded 50 years ago by the reclusive aviator-industrialist, has started construction of a $500-million research campus in the vicinity of Washington Dulles International Airport, in the heart of the northern Virginia technology corridor. Three years from now, campus buildings, unobtrusively tucked into the sloping hillside, will house the most advanced instruments for biomedical research and about 400 researchers and support staff.
The Janelia Farm Research Campus -- named after the 1936 Normandy-style farmhouse that is the centerpiece of the 281-acre wooded site -- will have a dual mission, according to Tom Cech, HHMI president and Nobel laureate. It will focus on developing technologies that can be applied to biomedical problems and on making space and resources available to visiting scientists who will collaborate on projects.
"It will be a unique environment that does not currently exist anywhere in the world," says Gerry Rubin, HHMI vice president, who, on May 7, was named director of the Janelia campus. An internationally renowned biologist, who led the effort to sequence the genome of the fruit fly, Rubin will move his laboratory from University of California at Berkley to Virginia.
Currently Rubin spends one day a week at the construction site, working with an architectural team lead by Rafael Viñoly, who, among other accomplishments, was one of two finalists in the competition for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site. Viñoly's vision for the research campus includes a three-story terraced structure in the shape of a wave, which will house laboratories for about 24 research teams. The campus will also include conference and educational facilities and transient housing for visiting scientists and their families.
Cech and Rubin started planning for the new campus even before taking their respective posts at HHMI' s headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland, in January 2000. Until then, HHMI had been funding the research of an elite group of scientists (currently about 330 investigators) spread out in more than 70 academic institutes across the United States. But as biology relies more and more on powerful computers and instrumentation, Cech and Rubin thought it would become increasingly difficult to bring these resources to their investigators. "We realized we could not count on our host institutes to take advantage of the new landscape of biology," Cech says.
Instead, they decided to create a physical institute to house the most advanced instruments and technologies available. Some areas of the main campus building will have a 30-foot drop to the floor designed to "hold the biggest pieces of equipment imaginable -- the biggest NMR or electron microscope," Rubin says. And each lab will be built so that the space can be adapted for changes in research environment. "We are building to accommodate everything we can conceive of now and that we might want to do 30 years from now, " he says. One of the centerpieces will be a data center that will be large enough to house 10,000 processors. (No decision has yet been made about what kind of systems will be purchased.)
"But we don't want to simply be a resource of the latest tools," Cech says. "We want to be involved in making the next generation of tools." For this reason HHMI will recruit scientists from different disciplines -- physics, chemistry, computer science, and biology -- to work collaboratively at Janelia. In addition, visiting scientists will be allowed to come and take advantage of the campus's unique resources. "Visitors may come to learn a new bioinformatics algorithm and then take it back to their institute," Cech says.
The idea of building cross-disciplinary teams for technology development is not new, but there are different models on how to do it. The most important ingredient, according to Kirby Vosburgh, an associate director for the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology, is to "provide a supportive environment to have a buffer zone to allow scientists to reach out beyond their specialties where the new science applications occur."
HHMI will fund Janelia investigators and their work, so that they will be free (and expected) to actively work in the lab. Janelia will also provide ample administrative and scientific support -- in fact, the number of support staff will be about equal to that of the scientists.
Both Cech and Rubin acknowledge that the mission and organization of the new campus is likely to appeal to a small percent of scientists. Janelia will have no tenure in the academic sense; the resident scientists will have five-year appointments that can be renewed. The labs will be relatively small, about four to five people under one investigator (compared to the 10-15 people in the typical HHMI investigator's lab), to encourage collaborations among groups.
Cech and Rubin got their inspiration for Janelia by studying what they consider to be the two most successful scientific institutes in the world: the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, and the Bell Labs in the United States. The resulting model -- small research groups, lots of collaborations, and strong administrative and scientific support -- is not typical of a traditional academic research institute but more like that of a biotech company.
"We are making a biotech company whose product is new basic knowledge that can be applied to biomedicine," Rubin says. And while the product may not be a drug or a medical device, Janelia investigators will be able to patent their discoveries and even form startup companies.
Sidebar: CIMIT Teams Up Leaders
Like HHMI's new campus, the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology (CIMIT) reaches across scientific disciplines to develop new technologies, but with a different focus. "We are interested in clinical applications and impact," says Kirby Vosburgh, an associate director for CIMIT.
Established in 1994, CIMIT is a consortium of academic and research institutions in the Boston area. Affiliates include Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women's Hospital, MIT, and Draper Laboratory.
CIMIT brings together teams of physicians, scientists, and engineers to identify problems in patient care and find innovative solutions. "We have doctors who stay awake nights figuring what they would like to do to make life better for their patients, and there are engineers who have figured out ways of doing things better. But the two may never meet," Vosburgh says. "So we put them together and support them so that they don't have to worry about many of the common barriers to success."
The CIMIT model relies on "leaders" -- experts with different professional backgrounds -- to make the right connections among clinicians and scientists. CIMIT leaders then work to overcome the common barriers to introducing a new technology to clinical practice -- for example, assessing the value of a technology in the clinical environment, dealing with FDA approval, making contacts with industry, and handling intellectual property issues. "We are consciously in the practical business of making it happen," Vosburgh says.
Key to this effort is knowing what to work on. "The investigator community, and particularly its leaders, should have a sense of when a field of inquiry is ripe and then ask, ‘Are we near the tipping point?’" Vosburgh says. "What you want to do is apply that insight, that capability, at the place where you can make an impact."