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Q&A: UCSF Opens Diller Family Cancer Research Building, Doubling Its Cancer-Care Footprint

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This is an updated version of a report first published on June 11.

Six years after Sanford Diller and his wife, Helen, donated $35 million to the University of California, San Francisco, the school has opened its Helen Diller Family Cancer Research Building on its campus in the city's Mission Bay section.

The $135 million, 163,000-square-foot facility will employ scientists carrying out basic research into how various forms of adult and pediatric brain cancers develop, as well as cancer population sciences and computational biology. It will bring all of UCSF's Brain Tumor Research Center researchers under one roof.

Designed by Rafael Vinoly, the five-story center is UCSF's first building specifically focused on translational research for one disease and reflects a new vision for cancer research, treatment, and prevention, according to the university.

Some 250 cancer scientists and their teams now work in the Diller Center's 33 labs, a number expected to grow over time to 400 scientists and support staff.

Further into the future, within the 57.5-acre Mission Bay campus, UCSF plans to build a 289-bed medical center intended for the $1.6 billion, 869,000-square-foot first phase of development for the hospital complex.

BioRegion News recently interviewed Frank McCormick, director of UCSF's Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, about the new facility and its significance to UCSF and its cancer research effort. Following is an edited transcript of that interview.

How long has the facility been in the works?

Probably four years, I would guess, or thereabouts. Originally the plan was to build the center on another campus, the Mount Zion campus, a different part of the university. Then the Mission Bay campus started to develop, and the plans were changed. The architects who were working with us have been with us for quite a long time.

How close to completion is the center? Has equipment been completely moved in?

The labs have been hard at work now for a month or so, many of them.

Why was this facility needed?

There were two major motivations. One was to bring the cancer research center to the Mission Bay campus. The plan for the cancer center specifically is to migrate many of the programs, basic and clinical, to Mission Bay. Currently, many of our programs are at Mount Zion. Most of that activity will migrate from Mount Zion to Mission Bay. We're bringing people from Mount Zion and from [the] Parnassus campus to work together side by side in the Mission Bay campus. And also, it is a huge increase in square footage for the cancer center, so it gives us the opportunity to hire a couple a lot more people, and build out the program.

What areas of cancer research will the Diller Center allow UCSF to focus on? Are these strictly the expansions of existing programs you mentioned, or will there be any new areas of research added?

The space has been assigned to three different areas [of research]. One is brain cancer; the brain cancer group will be bringing people from different sites to consolidate their program at Mission Bay. We'll have a few new recruits, but a lot of that is bringing people together who are currently dispersed.

The department of urology will be down here, focusing largely on prostate cancer. They'll be recruiting new people also. The rest of the space is the cancer center space, which is designed for people working on many different kinds of cancer, and the molecular mechanisms of cancer, as well as the epidemiology and multiple different programs.

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What happens to the space being vacated at Parnassus or Mount Zion?

Mount Zion is the bigger piece of that. As I mentioned, that will be backfilled by other cancer investigators, specifically those who will work closely with the clinical programs that will be at Mount Zion for the next five to 10 years. So they're the more translational people that work directly on patient-derived material, and on clinical trials and on clinical research. So that will be a wonderful opportunity to build those programs. And it will include new space for the department of radiation oncology, and head and neck cancer, and GYN cancer, and dermatology. Those programs will grow and flourish at Mount Zion. And some of them eventually will move on down here.

How much additional space does the Diller Center give UCSF for cancer research?

It pretty much doubles the amount of space that the cancer center directly controls.

How many researchers work out of the new Diller Center facility?

There will be about 400 people in the building, which will include 60 or so principal investigators.

Over what timeframe is the hiring going to take place?

Phase 1 is a lot of relocation from other sites, and consolidation at Mission Bay, which is where we are now. We have plans to hire some people right away in some of the new space, but it will probably take two to three years to really fill the whole building.

How many of these people will be shifted from other facilities, and how many will be new hires?

Probably, I'd say, more than one-third of the people in the building when it's completely finished, will be new people. Those recruitments will take a fair amount of resources and time to do, so that's why we're projecting it will be two to three years before [the Diller Center] is filled up.

There are some recruiting efforts currently underway. Some will go to the space being released at Mount Zion, and some will be down here right away. Many of the new people we recruit who work closely with the physicians will most likely go to Mount Zion first, and then move over here when we get the hospital completed. The clinical activity of the center will stay at Mount Zion until the new hospital is finished. That will probably be between five and 10 years, depending on how things go.

That's the 289-bed UCSF Medical Center, which is set to open in 2014? What is the latest with that project?

We're in the capital campaign to raise resources for it. So if everything goes perfectly, we could be in there by 2014. But in this financial environment, it might take a little longer. The whole project, which will be a very large and state-of-the-art women's and children's and cancer hospital complex, is well over $1 billion. That will be funded by debt the hospital can generate because it generates revenues, and philanthropy, and several other sources. There have been discussion of bond issues, right down the line, but it's not part of the initial project, as far as I'm aware.

What effect has the economy had on the development of the Diller Center?

Well, fortunately for us, the vast majority of the funding has already been secured. It hasn't actually slowed down that project at all. It could conceivably slow down the recruitment of new faculty in here. But we do have resources to hire people. We haven't had the space to do it until now. I don't think [the economy] will have a tremendous effect on us directly.

How closely did the Diller Center meet the schedule of UCSF?

It was a few months behind schedule, but nothing major. It was amazing how quickly these buildings [went] up once the foundations were laid down. It was quite remarkable.

How did the Dillers get involved with the project?

Sanford Diller has worked closely with Peter Carroll, who is the department chair of urology, and has supported some of [Carroll's] programs in the past. So I think that relationship pretty well got the whole thing started. [Diller] had previously given Peter Carroll's department some high-tech equipment, and [Diller] was obviously very happy with the relationship. And I think that was really the beginning of the relationship.

Looking into the future as Diller Center goes, what effect will it have throughout the UCSF system, at Mission Bay as well as at the other two campuses?

At the cancer center now, we have some 250 or more members — all the different scientists. One in five UCSF faculty is somehow affiliated with the Diller Cancer Center. It's one of the biggest programs. It spans all the different disciplines at UCSF. So it has impact at all three major campuses in different ways. For example, Parnassus campus is the home of the stem cell program, and [the] human genetics and immunology programs are at Parnassus. Cancer has a big piece in each of those programs; they're all relevant to cancer. And Mount Zion is mostly cancer. And down here [Mission Bay], it's currently more mechanistic and basic. But the cancer community will be involved in our new way [of] developing drugs, and understanding how cancer works, by interacting closely with the Mission Bay community. We have a pretty big influence in all of the academic research activities at UCSF.

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