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Facility expected to move campus up in health research ranks

By Andy Fell on October 22, 2004 in University

Cross-cutting, leading-edge research in genomics, bioinformatics, biomedical engineering, pharmacology and toxicology, and other disciplines took a leap forward as UC Davis officially dedicated its new Genome and Biomedical Sciences Facility on Oct. 13.

"Discovery simply does not stop at disciplinary boundaries," said Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef at the ceremony recognizing the new $95 million, 225,000-square-foot building. "In fact," Vanderhoef said, "those interfaces are where creative new ideas are most likely to occur. Through its unique combination of scientists, this new facility will permit UC Davis to make very real strides in the understanding of biology and in the advancement of human health, agriculture and the environment. And it will contribute significantly to the region's growing life-sciences corridor."

Genomics is a new approach to biology that uses technology to study thousands of genes at the same time. Bioinformatics is the related science of using computers and math to understand the DNA code. Biomedical engineers bring a fresh physics- and math-based approach to biology. Together, these disciplines provide a new way to understand biology and advance medicine.

"The life sciences will benefit tremendously from the interdisciplinary approaches to critical questions that will be made possible through this facility," said Phyllis Wise, dean of the division of biological sciences.

"The opening of the building is both a culmination of a vision to bring together researchers across many disciplines and the beginning of an ambitious plan to add expertise that will complement our strengths in genomics, proteomics and metabolomics," Wise said.

The building will house the UC Davis Genome Center, the Department of Biomedical Engineering and scientists from the School of Medicine. The research by this unique combination of biologists, physicians and engineers ranges from studies of molecules and cellular biology up to whole organisms.

Genome Center: 'Global' approach to biology fostered by floor plan

The Genome Center will house 17 faculty as well as provide core service facilities for genomics, proteomics and related areas to all scientists on campus. Its floor plan features open laboratories and shared spaces to encourage researchers from different backgrounds to mix and exchange ideas.

The Genome Center will serve as a "technology antenna" for genomics on campus by developing and maintaining state-of-the-art core service facilities, encouraging the growth of new research areas and teaching programs, said center director Richard Michelmore.

Michelmore, a professor of genetics, was appointed to lead the Genome Center in November 2003 and began recruitment of 15 new faculty members. The director's position is supported by an endowed chair in genomics sponsored by a $500,000 gift from Novozymes Inc., the world's largest manufacturer of industrial enzymes.

The center now has 11 faculty, nine of whom are new to campus. They have joint appointments in the Genome Center and departments in the biological and medical sciences, chemistry and the College of Engineering. Their research links biology with applied research in medicine, veterinary medicine and agriculture.

Michelmore describes genomics as a "global approach" to biology that impacts everything from DNA sequence analysis and modeling protein structure to metabolic profiling and population genetics. Research at the Genome Center will include plants, animals and microbes, re-flecting the campus's broad range of expertise.

Biomedical Engineering: Developing world-class imaging technology

The newest department on the UC Davis campus, biomedical engineering sits at the junction of technology, basic biology and medicine. Led by Katherine Ferrara, an expert in ultrasound imaging, its major research areas include biomedical imaging (ultrasound, PET and CAT scanning), computational biology, and cell and molecular engineering. The department was established with the aid of a $12 million grant by the Whitaker Foundation in 2001.

The department has created the Center for Molecular and Genomic Imaging, including $4 million of unique imaging instrumentation developed by the faculty. Imaging is performed at the whole-organ or whole-body level and can focus on anatomy, physiology, metabolism, or specific molecular targets, molecular pathways and the expression of reporter genes. The center will probably be the most comprehensive and state-of-the-art in vivo preclinical imaging center in the world, Ferrara said.

The department administers the highly competitive bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering with approximately 200 current students. The Biomedical Engineering Graduate Group administers the master's and doctoral programs in biomedical engineering, preparing students for careers in research and industry.

School of Medicine: Translating basic research into cures, therapies

The third component of the building includes more than 30 researchers from the School of Medicine who are focused on translating basic research discoveries into medical advances.

Research projects under way include studies in infectious diseases, cancer, nutrition, neuroscience, pulmonary medicine and cardiology. Many involve the study of genes, their protein products, cell membranes, ion channels and other key cellular and molecular components that hold promise as targets for new drugs and preventive therapies. By applying new molecular technologies such as microarrays, genomics and nanoscience, researchers are better understanding the interaction among multiple genes, complex cellular processes and pathogens.

The building houses research scientists from the following departments and divisions within the School of Medicine: Medical Pharmacology and Toxicology; Medical Microbiology and Immunology; Physiology and Membrane Biology; Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine; Cardiology; Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine; Endocrinology, Clinical Nutrition and Vascular Medicine; Rheumatology, Allergy and Clinical Immunology; and Nephrology.

The building includes conventional "wet lab" laboratories for biology and genetics; robotic equipment for analyzing DNA and proteins and carrying out other high-throughput analyses; computer labs and access to powerful clusters of computers; and advanced facilities for medical imaging.

The facility will also boost the developing biotechnology and high-technology industry in the Sacramento region, through education, commercialization of research discoveries, outreach and other activities.

Largely 'Garamendi' funded

The opening of the Genome and Biomedical Sciences Facility also has significance for the state of California in that it uses the largest amount of capital dollars to date from the "Garamendi" funding mechanism, signed into state law in 1990.

The legislation was sponsored by then-state Sen. John Garamendi, who is now insurance commissioner for California. This funding stream is based on the premise that new research activities undertaken by the university produce overhead reimbursements, predominantly from federal and other nonstate funds, that can be used to fund building costs.

The cost of the new facility includes $65 million in Garamendi funds, as well as funds from the School of Medicine and the Whitaker Foundation.

Media contact(s)

Andy Fell, Research news (emphasis: biological and physical sciences, and engineering), 530-752-4533,