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Huge Magnets Come to Harlem: New York Structural Biology Center Launches Protein Powerhouse in Manhattan

NEW YORK, Dec. 17 - In the former college gymnasium that now houses the New York Structural Biology Center, the walls are still tiled in gold and blue. Conversations echo through the cavernous empty swimming pool as if an intercollegiate swim meet were about to start. All that's missing is the smell of chlorine, and the water.


But this mothballed gym on the campus of City College in Harlem now hosts a very different kind of intramural effort: It is the custom-built home of New York City's newly minted joint structural-biology center, and it will soon house one of the most powerful collections of magnetic resonance spectroscopy equipment in the world.


The facility may also make the Big Apple a hotspot for protein-structure determination, enabling it to attract powerful structural biologists and develop into a more attractive destination for commercial biotechnology.


The product of an unprecedented collaboration between 10 of New York's research institutes, the NYSBC will soon offer researchers access to eight nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers and a cryo-electron microscope facility. These new instruments will boost local protein analysis throughput by more than 40-fold, said NYSBC President and CEO David Cowburn.


Yesterday, at the official opening ceremony in upper Manhattan, four new Bruker machines were already in place, each resting on massive 16-foot-wide pillars of poured concrete that reach all the way down to Manhattan's granite bedrock. By the spring, the center will house three 800 Mhz magnets, one 750/89 Mhz system, one that runs at 600 Mhz, and another at a resonance frequency of 500 Mhz.


The center expects to add another 700 MHz system in March, and, by November, its crown jewel: a premium $4 million 900 Mhz spectrometer that will be one of only a handful of its kind in the world. That state-of-the-art machine should allow researchers to investigate much larger proteins, pushing the size limit from 30 to 40 kDa up to roughly 100 kDa, said Cowburn.


Additional plans for the NYSBC include a cryo-electron microscopy facility that Cowburn said the center hopes to have "partly operational" in 2003.


Roughly 500 investigators from the member institutions will be able to work with these instruments. Like X-ray crystallography, NMR and cryo-electron microscopy allow researchers to examine the structure of biologically important proteins.


"Structural biology has been a bit of a clique activity, and we hope to make it more general," said Cowburn. "To some extent it's a sociological experiment as well as a scientific one."


With this added firepower, said administrators and researchers, New York City should become a hotspot for protein structure determination, retain powerful structural biologists and become a more attractive destination for commercial biotechnology.


"It's not going to solve the general problems of local biotech--the lack of space and the regulatory environment," said Cowburn. "But by having best resources outside Japan, we hope to attract people--and hope that the entrepreneurial spirit will flourish."


The effort to organize and fund the new center was led by Willa Appel of the New York City Partnership, a business group that has pushed to establish a biotech industry in the city.


Funds to retrofit the building and purchase the equipment came from the New York State government, the member institutions, the National Institutes of Health, Pfizer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and other private and public sources. The center now has about eight employees but will ultimately have a staff of 20 to 30 and a "core group," Cowburn said.


The former gym on the campus of City College in Harlem was chosen, said Cowburn, because it was one of the few spots in Manhattan that was isolated from electromagnetic interference and vibrations.


The New York Structural Biology Center consortium includes Columbia University, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York University, Rockefeller University, and others.

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