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Protein Structure Huge Magnets Trot into Harlem

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In a former college gymnasium at City College in Harlem, the walls are still tiled in gold and blue and conversations echo in the empty swimming pool as if an intercollegiate swim meet were about to start.

But this mothballed gym now hosts a very different kind of intramural effort: It is the home of the New York Structural Biology Center, and it will soon house one of the most powerful collections of magnetic resonance spectroscopy equipment in the world.

The product of an unprecedented collaboration between 10 New York research institutes — including Columbia University, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York University, and Rockefeller University — the center will soon offer roughly 500 investigators access to eight NMR spectrometers and a cryo-electron microscope facility. The result: a more than 40-fold boost in local protein analysis throughput, according to the center’s president and CEO David Cowburn.

At the opening ceremony in mid-December, four new Bruker magnets were each resting on massive 16-foot-wide concrete pillars reaching all the way down to Manhattan’s granite bedrock. By the spring, the center will house six magnets: one 500 MHz, a 600 MHz, and one 750/89 MHz, as well as three 800 MHz instruments. The center hopes to be able to add a 700 MHz magnet in that timeframe, as well.

The crown jewel will arrive by November: a premium $4 million 900 MHz spectrometer, one of only a handful in the world. That state-of-the-art machine would push the size limit for protein structure determination from 30 to 40 kDa up to about 100 kDa, says Cowburn. The cryo-electron microscope should be “partly operational” in 2003.

The center’s current staff of eight will ultimately grow to 20 to 30, says Cowburn.

“Structural biology has been a bit of a clique activity, and we hope to make it more general,” says Cowburn. “To some extent it’s a sociological experiment as well as a scientific one.” With this added firepower, New York City could become a hotspot for protein structure determination, attract powerful structural biologists, and become a more attractive destination for biotech.

“It’s not going to solve the general problems of local biotech — the lack of space and the regulatory environment,” says Cowburn. “But by having [the] best resources outside Japan, we hope to attract people — and hope that the entrepreneurial spirit will flourish.”

Willa Appel of the New York City Partnership, a group that pushes for a biotech industry in the city, led the effort to create the center. New York State, the member institutions, NIH, Pfizer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and other sources supplied the cash to purchase the equipment and retrofit the building.

Why a gym? It was one of the few spots in Manhattan isolated from electromagnetic interference and vibrations, Cowburn says.

— Kathleen McGowan

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