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Director Dennis Carson on UCSD s New $105M Cancer Center

La Jolla, Calif. — In April, the University of California, San Diego, will open a new facility hosting the UCSD Cancer Center. The five-story facility, which has been under construction since November 2002, will house five floors of laboratories and 22 principal investigators on a 2.4-acre site adjacent to Thornton Hospital on the southeast portion of the university campus here. The facility will include shared resources for DNA sequencing, biostatistics, digital imaging (with the Moores Cancer Center Digital Imaging facility), flow cytometry, laser-capture microdissection, and microarrays. The center will also collaborate with the San Diego Supercomputer Center.

Scientists accepted into the building will have shown a desire for interdisciplinary collaboration and a likelihood of scientific productivity over the next five years.

BioCommerce Week last week spoke with Dennis Carson, director of the facility, to learn about the research that the center will enable, and the tools that will be required by its scientists.

What will this new facility make possible?

Our university has traditionally been focused on basic research. The university has made a commitment to develop the translational research arena, because of a number of things — the interest of our students, because of the biotechnology industry, the needs of our patients, and the presence of the biotechnology industry in the area.

And, there is a long-range view that San Diego can play a role in the Pacific Rim, although there is nothing planned now. You can be anywhere in the Asia Pacific area and fly non-stop to Los Angeles and we are a two-hour drive [away].

There are relationships being developed in educational research on the clinical level as you look at the next level.

La Jolla is a center of biotechnology, and we have some 100 to 200 biotechnology companies close by, maybe even more, and probably a third of them are in the cancer area. UCSD has a very strong cancer research program and is one of the founding institutions in molecular biology but has never really had a single facility that would bring together the scientists, and people from biotech. The mission is to create a tertiary research and care facility.

We have a 260,000-gross-square-feet facility, one half of that for research and one half of that clinical, with state-of-the-art facilities for imaging and biomarkers. Some of the top scientists on campus will be there, as well as our cancer specialists. We are also recruiting both clinical researchers and scientists in the cancer area, and we are establishing a working relationship with the biotechnology industry in San Diego to try and develop a forum for the rapid discovery and development of new therapies centered around the cancer building.

The building will be at the center of a biotechnology park of 20 acres dedicated by the university to translational research that will benefit the economy but also help prepare our students for the kind of jobs that they are going to take when they get out. In our cancer center, we are interacting, of course, with our medical school, and the general campus and the divisions of chemistry, informatics, engineering, and then we have an ongoing industrial advisory board.

So we see ourselves as being the hub of a new kind of education on campus and interacting with both academic groups and people involved in drug development. This is a unique area to do that because of the entrepreneurial climate, and the fact that we are a very rapidly expanding state university, the geographic location on the Pacific Rim, with access to a highly skilled labor force, and because we still have land.

How was this funded?

The community donors were galvanized by the idea of having a world-class cancer center here and put up approximately half the money, and that encouraged the university to put up the other half. The total is about a $105 million facility. We have 25,000 students in the university, and some one-third of them are biology majors, it’s a science university. Where are they all going to go? They are going to have to work in industry; they can’t all be doctors and professors.

What areas do you plan on specializing in?

My specific area is in hematological cancers, leukemias and lymphomas, where the great cures have been achieved so far — so it’s a lot easier to translate molecular biology to the clinic. We are developing new programs in solid tumors — gastrointestinal tumors, breast cancer, and melanoma. All of our research will involve the use molecular markers.

We are not going to be a center that does very large Phase III clinical trials, which are more appropriately done in other settings. We will be a center that helps academics and industry to validate and to molecularly target therapeutics. So, we will be a big pharmacogenomics facility, bioinformatics, small animal imaging, and human imaging. Industry might come to us to help them, and we might use them when we need help. We will be integrating the whole campus on this. So this will be different from the typical cancer center, which is affiliated with a hospital and a medical school only.

We have a lot of recruiting going on with the goal of having the best people in the world in all disciplines who want to work in the climate of the West in a brand new building, with an Italian restaurant in it.

What makes us different are the two things I mentioned, the fact that the entire [San Diego] biotech hub surrounds us and that we are integrating with the entire campus.

You will have the DNA sequencing facility, and the microarray facility. What other new tools will you be using?

We are not only doing typical microarrays, we will be doing beta testing of genomic tools developed by industry in the San Diego area — and there are several that are not commercially available. And we will be doing proteomics at a much more micro-sample size than is currently done, and we will have a program in metabolic imaging done in collaboration with General Electric and the department of radiology. We have a lot scientists working in this area in terms of chemistry and terms of the practical radiology.

Are you looking at systems biology?

There was a belief prevalent until recently that most cancers were caused by simple mutations, deletions, and translocations of oncogenes and tumor-suppressor genes. But for many cancers, it has been difficult to identify a single reason and that it appears that, like many diseases, it is a combination of genes that you inherit, genes that mutate, and the environment that ultimately converge to give you disease.

These three influences are manifested by changes in the cell, affecting multiple pathways. What I mean by systems biology is examining the cancer cell to how the inherited genes in the host, the mutated genes in the cancer, and environmental factors come together to produce the illness in the organism.

A lot of systems biology is done ex vivo, seeing how a cell controls signal transduction. Through systems biology, we are actually looking at the whole organism. Here will we will be emphasizing translational research. We would like to learn how all of this works, and apply it in our choice of therapies.

Do you see a convergence among the tools and the disciplines in cancer research?

Biology, compared to physics is much, much harder. Physics has a limited number of variables, but the number of variables in a cancer patient is so large that that convergence is going to take a huge effort by a number of people in a large number of disciplines, and it’s not going to happen tomorrow. We are spending so much money on this cancer center to set up the infrastructure and the tools to support it. You need a new building and you need the right tools. That’s why we created bioinformatics units, engineering units — getting people together who think differently.

We will have clinical to basic research. But not all cancer research goes on in that building — it’s the translational hub. Somebody will still be working at the basic pathway in a biology lab or in a physics lab and people in industry working on small little projects will come to us.

Our labs are large, with 20,000-square-feet, open labs with shared facilities in the middle. There will be no empires. We will have extensive shared facilities for delivering material to the banks and for genomics and proteomics. And there will also be labs dedicated just for clinicians so when they have a good idea, they will have a place where they can interact with basic scientists without having to maintain a lab on their grants.

We have an industrial advisory board with biotech executives, venture capitalists, and attorneys. They have met two times so far. We will also have a symposium associated with that group, and it is our intention to have a regular consortia seminar meeting where academics and industry can meet to discuss how to accelerate the drug discovery process.

What is your strategy for the tools you will use?

Companies want to get tools beta tested. We are talking to San Diego companies and some national Fortune 500 type companies. We’re negotiating with different people. This is not a money issue for us, we just want to get the best kinds of collaborations going where we can help each other. We want to get the new instruments. Not the ones that you can buy.

We are going to need a high-throughput multiple sequencer facility for the campus. But they won’t be in the building. But we have a buy-in on that. We want to be able to profile DNA, and do sequencing, and the investigators have a big commitment to the area but we are not going to have all those facilities in our building.

The building was very expensive to build because there are patients in there. We have had to undergo all kinds of certification that doesn’t happen in a generic lab building. And, you have to be careful that the work done there, as opposed to any other place on campus, is translational.

How has this project changed your job?

I am a scientist, but now I go out to dinner two times a day. My major job is to recruiting and making sure the programs are correct.

What does your next hire look like?

We are looking for clinical researchers, people in pharmacogenomics, bioinformatics, clinical trials, chemistry, and engineers.

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