Creating Campus Core Research Facilities: Trying to Stay Ahead of Technological Curve

By Camille Mojica Rey

By Camille Mojica Rey The reality of modern science is that advances are driven by technologies that have become more expensive, increasingly complex and highly specialized. It is not uncommon, for example, for a single instrument to cost $500,000. This means individual investigators can no longer afford a lab full of the instrumentation required to answer some of the most pressing questions facing their particular fields. Likewise, creating a small core facility with other investigators in hopes of being able to afford the equipment often results in financial struggle because enough business cannot be generated to survive or stay ahead of the technological curve. "The way we have been using technology on campuses nationwide has been pretty inefficient," explained Teri Melese, UCSF School of Medicine's director of Research Technologies and Alliances. "Without central planning you wind up with multiple redundant sites which, in a time of limited resources, make it difficult to offer a broader spectrum of technologies to campus users," Melese said. As part of a School of Medicine initiative, Melese has been leading an effort to consolidate, coordinate and support a system of Campus Core Research Facilities (CCRF's). Now, those efforts are being integrated with the Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI) and the UCSF Strategic Plan. Joseph (Mike) McCune, CTSI program director, and Keith Yamamoto, executive vice dean of the School of Medicine, are working together to figure out how UCSF can provide CCRFs that offer advanced, innovative instrumentation and/or specialized services to benefit all researchers. The goal is to create a system that will allow all UCSF investigators to access a wide variety of services when they need them, said Keith Yamamoto, executive vice dean of the School of Medicine. "Centralized planning will eliminate redundant services, improve efficiency and provide the potential for sustainable deployment of necessary technologies," Yamamoto said. Maintaining State-of-the-Art Facilities The new system will rely on cooperation and coordination. Initially, all facilities will remain financially independent, Melese explained. The main difference will be that no two facilities will provide the same service, she said. This will allow new facilities to specialize in a particular area, invest in the latest technology and accommodate for new technology as it becomes available. "It's hard to maintain state-of-the-art facilities if you are competing within your institution," she said. Improving efficiency of campus research facilities also means changing current working relationships, cross-training select employees and attracting industry scientists to campus. "First, we will need to cross school and department boundaries to respond to the needs of campus users and the advice of technology experts," Melese said. Second, she said, cross-training certain employees will allow them to move between core facilities as needed. Finally, a new career track may also need to be created to hire or retain scientists who might otherwise seek jobs in industry to run core facilities, something that cannot be done without campus-level support, she said. "We want to be able to attract the best industry scientists who also have training in business, management and innovation," Melese said. Testing the Plan Melese and others have been working for two years on a pilot study to craft and test the CCRF plan. They created the first CCRF, the Campus Genome Core Facility (CGRF), and it has been a great success, Melese said. "This is something researchers and core directors were really excited to do, but it required hard work and lots of collegiality," she said.
Teri Melese, right, talks with colleagues

Teri Melese, right, talks with colleagues in the Campus Genomics Core Facility on the Parnassus campus.

To establish the CGCF, Melese worked closely with Georgianne Meade, director of Research Planning & Communications, in the School of Medicine's Dean's Office and with Cory Fergus, assistant director of the Institute for Human Genetics. "We've developed a cooperative working group between all of the genomics facilities on campus," Fergus explained. The CGCF is co-directed by Pui-Yan Kwok and Allan Balmain, with an advisory board that includes the directors of the individual genomics core facilities. The effort came as a welcome change to those working in those dozen or so facilities, said Chris Barker, director of the Genomics Core Laboratory at the UCSF-affiliated J. David Gladstone Institutes. "All of us were struggling because there wasn't enough work to sustain the overlaps," Barker explained. Running these facilities is like running a small business, Barker explained. "We have to keep our customers happy, we have to keep current and we have to be financially stable. We're often working on razor thin margins," Barker said. Finding funding for new technology and development of new applications is challenging, he added. Each CGCF unit now focuses on particular genomics-related services, such as PCR or DNA sequencing. "This allows the cores to really work together and provide resources to the investigators," said Barker. Supporting Science According to Barker, this kind of coordination is the wave of the future for academic scientists across the country. He points to a few other institutions, such as Vanderbilt University, in which a centralized office has been created to handle the financial and coordinating responsibilities for a system of campus research facilities. "That kind of oversight allows the campus to have a long-range view of where both the technology and researchers' interests are headed," he said. "To advance the science, you need scientific leaders in the campus administration to direct the acquisition and development of new technologies, as well as the expansion of existing technology," he said. Fergus agreed that formalized campus-level oversight is the next step if UCSF is to compete with its counterparts. "Some of these places literally have genotyping factories with tons of staff and technology," he said. This investment in technology is essential for making important discoveries, Fergus explained. "The field of genomics is changing quickly. To keep up, we'll need more campus-level support and coordination," he said. "For example," he continued, "we seriously need an additional bioinformatics core just to handle the data generated by the technology we already have in use." Melese and Meade are currently working with the CTSI to create additional campus core facilities, such as proteomics. "We're taking what we've learned and turning it into a process that we can apply to the larger technology areas," Melese said. These other areas will include imaging, bioinformatics, tissue banking and flow cytometry, she said. Melese also said she is hopeful that a campus steering committee will be formed to look at permanent solutions to the challenges posed by today's technology. "One thing that is clear is that we need someone to provide oversight," she said. In addition to technology core facilities that require high-end instrumentation, additional CCRFs that are being planned include those that can only function with the help of highly-experienced consultants, such as experts in patient recruitment, scientific writing, biostatistics, data management, and trial design. "Creation of cores that can provide such services will go a long way towards helping faculty, especially junior faculty, to effectively plan for and carry out clinical and translational research," says McCune. Photo by Susan Merrell Related Links: UCSF Begins to Implement the Strategic Plan
UCSF Today, Oct. 19, 2007