UCSF Pushes the Frontiers of Knowledge of Cardiovascular Biology and Disease

Views and ample light are key elements of the new LEED-certified Smith Cardiovascular Research Building at Mission Bay.

Serving one of the largest communities of basic science and clinical researchers studying cardiovascular disease anywhere in the world, the Smith Cardiovascular Research Building, the newest addition to UCSF Mission Bay, blends state-of-the art technology and cutting-edge design.

The result: an ease and camaraderie that reminds faculty, staff and patients alike of how life used to be in simpler times.

“It’s like an old-fashioned neighborhood,” said Ethan Weiss, MD. “Most of us keep our doors open when we’re here. My own ability to interact has exploded. I can go ask people with expertise in any number of different areas for help.”

Weiss, 41, is a clinical cardiologist and scientist with the renowned UCSF Cardiovascular Research Institute (CVRI) which was founded in 1957 in response to a worldwide need for dedicated research into heart and vascular diseases and their origins. These diseases remain the leading cause of death and disability in the United States, accounting for nearly one million deaths each year, and the incidence is expected to increase as the population ages.

Housing both clinical and research programs, the building is specifically designed to enhance UCSF’s commitment to translational medicine. For more than 50 years, the CVRI has produced a steady stream of work that has improved the quality of life for heart and vascular patients.

"UCSF’s CVRI and this new structure are really about building and supporting a community of scientists that integrates basic and clinical research to address important questions in cardiovascular biology and disease," said Shaun Coughlin, MD, PhD, director of the CVRI. "We hope and expect that the people and programs that the Smith building hosts will produce important advances in science and medicine."

Designed by SmithGroup with Jim Jennings Architecture, the Leadership in Engineering and Environmental Design-certified building is about half full. About 500 people, including up to 48 principle investigators, will eventually work there.

Fostering Collaborations

Weiss moved into the five-story building in late October, one of the first arrivals to the $254 million building that features stupefying views and lots of light.

An outpatient clinic and preventive care center occupy part of the first floor. The second, third and fourth floors are almost identical, with open laboratories, roomy kitchens and interaction areas -- loud or quiet -- where people can eat, chat or read. Conference rooms include gigantic drop-down screens and convertible walls that can disappear to create more space.

A sky-lit stairway, dubbed the “interaction staircase,” is central to the building, literally and figuratively. It promotes spontaneous and serendipitous encounters with people from various disciplines who were scattered on different campuses and are now under one roof with a cardiovascular focus.

“Almost nobody uses the elevator,” Weiss said. “It’s really great. You run into people on the staircase you wouldn’t otherwise see for weeks. And we’ve all lost a little weight.”

Lisa Wilsbacher, MD, PhD, and Shaun Coughlin, MD, PhD

The building’s design and location have fostered collaborations with patients. Cardiologist Robin Shaw, MD, PhD, simply needs to descend two floors to see them. And the patients also have easy access to UCSF's experts in cardiovascular research and care. There is valet parking, a MUNI light-rail line, convenient access to two major freeways and a gorgeous waiting room. At the end of the visit, patients can even shower if, for example, they take a treadmill test.

“People want to come here,” Shaw said. Like Weiss, his work is 80 percent research and 20 percent patient care. Besides his regular clientele, he sees adults with heart disease who donate blood for his research.

“I’ve started giving them tours of the building,” said Shaw, 43. “I want to acknowledge their contribution by providing an understanding of what they’re participating in. Most people are eager to participate in efforts that will push the frontiers of knowledge about their particular disease. Learning what happens inside the building gives them more of a connection to how we are expanding the knowledge base. Educating research participants is important because the benefits usually materialize well after the early research is conducted.

“There’s only so much we can learn from a mouse,” he continued. “I know it sounds obvious, but scientifically that point is often lost. That’s what we can do here. We can incorporate critical samples and human disease histories as part of the basic research program.”

Shaw said the building’s design also promotes chance interactions that can lead to scientific ventures. For instance, he often runs into Takashi Mikawa, a renowned cardiovascular developmental biologist, when they’re getting beverages or snacks in the kitchen. One day Mikawa overheard Shaw and his postdoctoral fellow discussing a protein she was studying. It led to a conversation, then a lab meeting and quite likely a future collaboration.

Thoughtfully Designed

Shaw recently gave a tour to one of his regular patients, 74-year-old Joseph Higgins, a retired kinesiologist who taught at San Francisco State University and had a major heart attack in 2005. Although he lives in Upper Haight-Ashbury District and walked to his appointments at the Parnassus campus, he prefers the exciting environment at Mission Bay.

“It’s a wonderful building,” said Higgins, who was accompanied by his wife during the tour. “It’s fresh and it seemed easy for us to move through, even though it’s rather complex. It was spacious and the waiting room was comfortable. It all seemed very thoughtfully designed.”

At first, however, Higgins suspected that he would have objected to the open and flexible lab setup if he were still working as a scientist and would have preferred his own tiny space instead. As the tour progressed, however, he changed his mind.

“It’s easy to shift things around and now that seems like a very good idea,” Higgins said. “You don’t need a dedicated office. We were very taken by everything we saw. And the ease of getting from Robin’s lab to his office to the examining room was pretty spectacular.”

The sky-lit stairway is dubbed the “interaction staircase.”

Shaw’s favorite part of the building is the bicycle storage area, which includes space for 34 bicycles and a changing room. Biking to work takes only 20 minutes from his Miraloma Park home, though the uphill return doubles the travel time.

“It speaks to the amount of thought that went into this building and making it a comfortable environment,” said Shaw, as he gazed around the room with immense satisfaction. “This is a seven-day operation. The people here work super-hard, 60 or 70 hours a week. So these lifestyle issues are not trivial.”

In a similar vein, Weiss showed off a first-floor auditorium, which hosts receptions, presentations for patients, vendor shows and talks by job candidates that are videotaped, ensuring that no one will miss the recruits’ lectures.

“There was a meeting I had to go to at my daughter’s school during one talk and I didn’t feel guilty about it because I knew I could come back to my office afterward and just watch it online,” Weiss said.

He relishes being able to pop into people’s offices rather than relying on phone or e-mail -- and to having other campus research buildings nearby, along with industry partners in the growing biotechnology hub that is a big part of the Mission Bay neighborhood.

“The move to this building has been all good,” Shaw said. “Incidentally, no one wanted to come to Mission Bay when the campus first got started. It was considered too much of a schlep.”

The grand opening celebration of the cardiovascular building will take place next year, after a temporary power plant is replaced by a landscaped courtyard.