Genome center becomes part of Downtown’s DNA

Downtown Express photo by Heather Dubin Lab workers at the New York Genome Center work behind glass doors to keep their area pristine.

Downtown Express photo by Heather Dubin
Lab workers at the New York Genome Center work behind glass doors to keep their area pristine.

BY HEATHER DUBIN  |  The bioscience frontier now has a new epicenter in Downtown Manhattan with the official opening of the New York Genome Center last month.

The 170,000-square-foot medical research facility will be a hub for collaboration between academia, industry and clinicians, with 16 participating universities and hospitals so far.

Located at 101 Sixth Ave., between Watts and Grand Sts., the genome center was created with more than $140 million in funds from New York City, New York State and several foundations and philanthropies, including Mayor Bloomberg. The center occupies seven floors of the 23-story building, which formerly housed the 32BJ union headquarters.

The mayor was a keynote speaker at the Sept. 19 ribbon-cutting ceremony. About 300 people attended the event, and learned how the genome center will help alter the field of science in order to better understand and treat human disease.

Dr. Robert Darnell, the genome center’s president and scientific director, spoke of a revolution in medicine that is saving people’s lives.

“This is causing a second wave of revolution in the way we do science,” he said. “It’s no longer done by small labs, instead by large consortia, and different kinds of people and different kinds of science.”

Scientists, medical doctors and biotechnology partners will work together across disciplines and multi-institutional projects.

“This is not unusual — it’s completely unheard of,” Darnell emphasized. “Genome centers don’t do clinical medicine, they do genomic science — except the New York Genome Center, we’re going to do both.”

He described the sharing of clinical information, and the collaborative effort of his associates, as a way to approach problems too complex to solve alone.

The regional center is experiencing a tremendous upgrade from its previous 3,000-square-foot space at Rockefeller University on the Upper East Side.

To demonstrate the value of genetic research, Darnell revealed a recent triumph from researchers at the center who have been looking for months at a series of cancers from 10 different patients who are all related. Two days earlier, researchers had made a vital breakthrough.

“They solved a complete mystery about a kind of cancer: how it comes about, how we can diagnosis it and, most importantly, how we might treat it in the future,” he said. “I believe that we can use genomics to start to make sick people better.”

The technology available today has drastically increased the speed to find mutations that can cause disease.

“We can sequence a person in a day for $3,500,” Darnell said. “That was undreamed of a decade ago.” This is done with an Illumina HiSeq-2500 machine, which is capable of reading a person’s complete DNA at once.

Currently, the center has 16 such machines, and plans call for a total of 80. Each one costs $1 million to operate. Within the span of a day, the center is able to generate a trillion base pairs of DNA sequence.

Dr. Tom Maniatis, chairperson of the New York Genome Center’s scientific and clinical steering committee, was introduced by Darnell as the driving force behind the center. Preliminary meetings for the facility began three years ago, and Maniatis, who was integral in founding the center, joked it all started because they had a “pretty foolish idea.”

This idea morphed into the Sixth Ave. genome center, which now serves as a model for the future of medicine and biotechnology.

“The New York Genome Center will not only provide large-scale sequencing using state-of-the-art technology,” Maniatis said, “but will bring together the entire New York community to tackle the problem of making biological and medical sense of large data sets.”

Bloomberg was the final speaker, and prefaced his comments with a good health report.

“I feel fine, but if I keel over, you should know, all the philanthropy stops,” he joked. “I tried to explain that to Johns Hopkins.”

On a more serious note, Bloomberg praised New York City as a place of innovation, for commerce, culture, science and industry.

“Innovation seems to be in our DNA,” he said.

Bloomberg noted that researchers in Manhattan receive $1.4 billion in funding, and that the city overall gets $64 billion in research funding from the federal National Institute of Health.

“Our administration investing in the New York Genome Center is part of our overall strategy called the ‘Innovative Economy in New York,’ ” he said. Bloomberg said he wants to attract people to the Big Apple with creative jobs and good living conditions.

As a parting shot, Bloomberg offered some advice to both Drs. Darnell and Maniatis.

“This is the logical place for the New York Genome Center,” he said. “Bob and Tom, let me just say what I say to all my new employees — don’t screw it up.”

With a seven-floor, cutting-edge facility and room for growth — there are currently only 51 employees — the center is bound to find talent to fill the seats of its cubicles and labs.

“The center is designed to promote collaboration, with glass divides, informal and formal rooms and an outside garden,” explained William Fair, the center’s vice president for strategic operations.

The view of the city from the center’s garden matches the genome center’s logo. There are interconnecting staircases, the walls are painted bright orange, and there is plenty of light in the labs and the lab write-up areas. Even the  washroom has a spectacular view.

The DNA is kept in large freezers before it goes onto the sequencing machines

There are several different labs throughout the buildings, an innovation lab, a sample prep room, a production sequencing lab and a Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments-certified lab for 43 states, excluding New York, which they are working on. It is a difficult certification to obtain, and only Columbia University and Mount Sinai are C.L.I.A. certified in Manhattan.

The plan is to have 300 people working there by 2014, and 500 by five years after that.

“We’re looking for people good with big data who can interpret it quickly, and see patterns emerging,” Fair said. “We need people to take complex data and make it simpler.”

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