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Archive for Saturday, August 16, 2003

Bioscience buildings boom on campus

August 16, 2003

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George Wilson figures his research on proteins can be more productive if he's working in the same building with others working on similar projects.

"In this day and age, people don't go in the corner and figure out these problems by themselves," he said.

Wilson's working conditions are bound to improve, as Kansas University is about to spend more than $2.7 million on a new "structural biology" building, and $4.4 million more on research equipment. Much of the research focuses on "proteomics," the study of proteins.

"With all these techniques going on and the acquisition of new equipment, it will enable experienced people to do an even better job," said Wilson, a professor of chemistry.

At press time, groundbreaking for the new 12,000-square-foot building, which will be on west campus just west of the Simons Biosciences Research Laboratories and McCollum Laboratories, was set for around the first of August.

Bio-building rush

The building is part of a flurry of bioscience buildings at KU and across the nation, as universities attempt to cash in on a doubling in the budget of the National Institutes of Health for the past five years. The National Science Foundation is aiming to double its budget by 2007.

Robert Barnhill, KU's vice provost for research, said the reason for the increased funding was simple: "Everybody wants to live forever."

"But there are storm clouds on the horizon," he said, noting that the National Institutes of Health isn't proposing any additional large increases for the next few years.

That may leave some universities with new buildings and not enough research to fill them. But Barnhill said he didn't think that would apply to KU.

"Lawrence isn't overbuilt," he said.

In fact, KU officials are looking at the possibility of building a new science research facility to replace Malott Hall, which will be 60 years old next year. That would cost approximately $65 million, and $30 million of which is part of the KU First capital campaign under way at the KU Endowment Association. No major gifts have been received at this point.

Malott likely would become a science classroom building. Or KU may decide to build a new classroom building and keep Malott primarily as a research facility.

Med Center

The KU Medical Center also will soon have a new building with hopes of filling it with federally funded research. Construction on a $57 million bioscience research facility is set to begin in October and be complete by December 2005.

The building is among the projects funded with $133 million in bonds approved in 2002 by the Kansas Legislature for research facilities at KU, Kansas State University and Wichita State University.

Barbara Atkinson, executive dean for the Med Center, said the new building will house four research teams:

l Proteomics research;

l Pharmacology and toxicology, which includes a project on liver disease and toxins;

l Reproductive biology, including studies in male and female fertility, contraception and fetal health;

l Neuroscience, including research on mental retardation and stroke.

Atkinson said most researchers going into the building -- about 44 faculty members in all -- already received federal funds, so she didn't expect the Med Center to have too much research space and not enough research. In fact, some researchers already have complained their allotted space won't be enough, she said.

"I'm pretty confident it won't be an issue," Atkinson said. "I'm not worried about not being able to fill (the building) with research."

Lawrence bond money

The new building in Lawrence also is a product of the 2002 bond issue. Although the bulk of KU's money was slated for the Medical Center campus, $5 million will go to Lawrence.

That Lawrence money initially was earmarked for equipment that would be housed in Malott Hall.

But Jim Roberts, associate vice provost for research, said space constraints convinced university officials to look elsewhere. That especially was the case with a new 800-megahertz nuclear magnetic resonance machine -- or NMR -- which must have a protective zone around it.

Roberts said KU was able to buy some of the equipment cheaper than anticipated, and put that money into the cost of a new building. The rest of the funding came from leftover money from grants, he said.

The building is expected to be complete by Oct. 1, 2004.

"This would really be a state-of-the-art proteomics center," Roberts said. "It's really going to put KU in the forefront."

Roberts said KU officials someday would like to expand the new building to be about 30,000 square feet to include more lab space. That would cost another $2 million to $3 million.

Proteins, the future

Wilson admitted it was hard to explain to the public why the Structural Biology Center -- nicknamed "SBC" -- on West Campus would be important.

The research conducted there will focus on proteins, which are coded for by genes. Proteins are responsible for many cell-level body functions and initiate diseases.

"The human genome has more or less been mapped," Wilson said. "Now it's possible with that information to define a series of proteins that are derived from the genes."

There are approximately 30,000 genes that code for 1 million proteins.

"We discover many proteins and don't know what they do," Wilson said.

That's where the new equipment comes into play. The NMR allows researchers to view proteins' interactions with other molecules in solutions. A new crystallography X-ray will allow their structures to be analyzed more closely.

Wilson said the new equipment was a "significant upgrade" from the current machines used by KU researchers.

Roberts said KU officials were hoping the new facility would draw new researchers to the university.

"We see it as a recruiting tool for students and new faculty," he said. "I hate to make a sports comparison, but it's like showing off the new strength center. It shows how committed the institution is."

-- Staff writer Terry Rombeck can be reached

at 832-7145.

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