Photo by Ignacio Lobos
The Parkhurst Lab wanted highly magnified images of wound repair in fruit-fly embryos. Dr. Beti Thompson needed a bilingual cookbook with color photos of ethnic favorites for Hispanic diabetics. Dr. Paul Neiman required a novel microarray to analyze gene expression in chickens.
All found solutions by turning to Shared Resources, one of the nation’s largest groups of core facilities to support the existing and emerging needs of our researchers. Ranging from proteomics and scientific imaging to therapeutic manufacturing and genomics, the 45 or so different services provide centralized expertise and technologies. Like unseen beams supporting a building, Shared Resources is a major factor in the Center’s long record of scientific successes.
Electron microscopy—which magnifies by 100,000 times the inner workings of a cell or virus—was the first Centerwide shared resource. Dr. Bill Hutchinson established it in 1974, just as the Center itself was getting off the ground. Glassware Services, Flow Cytometry, Image Analysis and Media Prep soon joined Electron Microscopy as early resources.
“From day one, there was a vision that it made sense to have these centralized services with the specialized talent and equipment needed rather than duplicating them throughout the organization,” said Janell Baldwin, vice president, Shared Resources.
Baldwin came to the Center in 1989 to lead the program, which is part of the Administration Division within the Office of the Director. Her banking and business background has served her department well during the explosive growth of resources offered in the past 20 years.
Each resource like a small business
“It’s a marriage of my interest in science and finance,” she said, comparing each resource to a small business. “Most of the resources are headed up by highly qualified staff scientists. They bring the scientific expertise and I help with the finance and management. It’s a great partnership.”
The Centerwide resources—Biocomputing, Animal Health, Therapeutic Manufacturing, Electron Microscopy, Flow Cytometry, Genomics, Immune Monitoring, Glassware, Proteomics, Specimen Processing, Scientific Imaging, Antibody Development, Experimental Histopathology, the Arnold Library and Research Computing Support—employ about 150 people. Animal Health has the largest staff of about 50 workers, who keep the resource operating seven days a week. The utilization of these resources is broad based across the four scientific divisions.
Divisional resources include Computer Graphics, Cytokine Analysis, Epidemiology, Nutrition Assessment, the Prevention Center, Specialized Pathology, Nutrition Assessment and Collaborative Data Services. The last one is the largest of the divisional resources with a 60- to 100-person staff, depending on the time of year. The division-based resources report within their divisional structures, with Baldwin acting as an adviser.
Such core scientific support is an expensive endeavor. Shared Resources’ annual operating budget is about $16.5 million. About 20 percent of the department’s funding comes from institutional funds including the Center’s core grant; user fees cover the remainder. Mindful of limited grant funding, the department keeps user fees as low as possible. Using equivalent services externally typically is much more costly. However, when the economies of scale cause that to change, outsourcing is sometimes necessary.
Investing in the latest technologies and creating or modifying facilities to house the equipment has historically cost the Center about $5 million annually. Pricey, yes, but absolutely critical, say researchers.
“Science has become much more interdisciplinary over the past few years, requiring a number of approaches and expertise to address the significant questions and make ground-breaking advances at the leading edge of given fields,” said Dr. Susan Parkhurst of the Basic Sciences Division. “Access to state of the art equipment, tools and technologies is essential for success.
“It is difficult for individual labs to keep up financially and technically with the rapid advances, sheer sophistication and costs of these technologies and equipment. The extensive Shared Resources we have here allow us to move in research directions and to do experiments that wouldn't be possible otherwise.”
Parkhurst credits the resources’ scientific directors for troubleshooting and providing sage advice in experimental design. She said their expertise often makes the difference between success and failure with experiments.
Shared Resources works hard to be at the forefront of innovation. For instance, Dr. Jeff Delrow, now director and staff scientist for Genomics, established one of the first microarray core labs in existence. In those early days, groups from around the world constantly contacted the lab, asking for advice on how to get started. They provided on-site training for other new microarray sites and functioned as a beta test site for commercial products. They also manufactured several new array types to support Center researchers.
Contributions to scientific papers
U.S. and international researchers routinely seek the expertise of the Genomics staff. Delrow says his team feels a strong sense of ownership and accomplishment in their contributions.
“This resource owes much of its success not just to the technology, but to the experience and dedication of our staff. We get satisfaction out of assisting someone who is completely new to a technology and helping him or her successfully integrate it into their research in a meaningful way,” he said. “We also relish those opportunities where we collaborate with researchers on some form of technological innovation and hopefully take a conceptualized approach and help make it a reality. I get a strong sense from talking with researchers here and elsewhere that the Genomics Resource and its staff go beyond what one typically finds in a core lab environment.”
Each resource contributes to an average of 52 scientific papers each year. About 82 investigators used each resource in the last fiscal year, while each resource contributed, on average, up to 190 grants in the same period.
The technology in most of the resources is extremely expensive. For example, one mass spectrometer in Proteomics costs $850,000. Even though Animal Health is lower tech, they have seen huge jumps in feed prices. They buy close to $1 million in supplies annually.
In addition, many of the instruments generate a tremendous amount of data, which has a huge impact on data storage and back-up. For instance, as data rolls off a machine in the Genomics facility, Research Computing Support is responsible for the storage and archiving of the information so the researcher can go right from the resource to the lab and immediately access the data.
“The scale of the science has changed,” Baldwin said. “The resources have a ripple effect on the need for more resources. We’ve had to hire additional people who can help analyze the massive amount of data being generated.”
Shared Resources is one of the selling points when the Center recruits new talent. Prospective faculty often tour the core facilities, and having such access plays a role when they evaluate whether the Center is best place for them to pursue their research.
“Most visiting investigators are amazed and jealous about the resources we have,” said Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb, associate head of the Clinical Research Division’s Transplantation Biology program. “It is not an overstatement to say that the outstanding, highly competitive science done at the Center is enabled by our shared resources.”
Often, the hiring of new faculty takes the resources in novel directions to meet scientific needs.
For example, Baldwin didn’t plan to expand any of the resources last year. But the hiring of Dr. Patrick Paddison in the Human Biology Division drove the development of an RNAi screening facility (under Genomics) to support his research and collaborations.
Competition for the resources can be intense, given that each resource is trying to operate with as few staff members as possible to keep costs down. Every resource has its own faculty advisory committee that helps establish use priorities and gives input on capital equipment decisions.
Superb resources draw outside clients
Many of the resources have external clients as well. Sometimes former faculty members or postdoctoral fellows who are now at other institutions realize what superb resources they left behind. This has led to customers and collaborators throughout the world.
First priority is given to Center researchers, then to our Consortium partners, and lastly, to external users. The resources are particularly attractive to start-up biotech companies. Rather than immediately investing in expensive infrastructure, some use a resource like Flow Cytometry for a while until they can afford to buy their own equipment.
Baldwin and her scientific directors and managers constantly analyze usage to try to predict staffing needs and capacity. Unfortunately, she says, it remains a guessing game.
“I’d like to say we can predict and we know what’s going to happen, but that’s the hardest part of this,” Baldwin said. “Just when you think you can find a pattern, you find it’s not true. There’s often no pattern to how people are using resources.”
There have been usage surprises, too. The Public Health Sciences Division—traditionally focused on population-based science—is the highest user of Proteomics, a lab-based resource. The Women’s Health Initiative, one of the largest studies in PHS, brought a huge surge of business to Specimen Processing when it moved the DNA extraction of its thousands of biospecimens to the Center, creating the need to do 3,000 to 4,000 such extractions each month.
Occasionally, some services—like media prep and peptide synthesis—are outsourced when a vendor can deliver the service more cheaply. But other services like live cell imaging must be on site because the science demands it.
As Baldwin and her managers, like administrators throughout the Center, look to cut their budgets in the midst of sobering fiscal realities, they remain committed to their focus of sustaining and supporting the science. Some individual services may be at risk of disappearing, but not entire resources.
They constantly analyze their operations to try to find ways to save costs. They are working with Purchasing to try to get deeper discounts on supplies. Additionally, they’re analyzing maintenance contracts.
“In Flow Cytometry, there’s a motherboard on one of the instruments that is critical to its operation. If that goes out, it can be a $20,000 expense,” Baldwin said. “So is it better to have the maintenance contract? Genomics has close to $250,000 in maintenance contracts.
“We try to balance between knowing that the equipment has been reliable to what would be the cost to the science if that instrument was down for a week or more? Given the pressures that the investigators are facing with grant deadlines and the need to have the data on a timely basis, we’ve got to ensure that we’re operational.”
Big savings on grants
Scott Sutherland, who manages Collaborative Data Services, believes his group’s work has become even more pertinent as Center budgets have tightened. His resource, which helps about 100 studies yearly with data management and data acquisition tasks, as well as programming and creative services, can save researchers money.
“Researchers are finding they don’t necessarily need full-time staff in certain areas. We can plug in a programmer half time or 20 percent and save thousands of dollars on a grant. Paying just for the help you need is very cost-efficient,” he said.
“Since we only charge for the actual time spent working on a project, we allow investigators’ budgets to be a lot leaner and still get the work done,” he said. Sutherland also noted the benefit to studies of being able to work with the same staff members repeatedly rather than using outside temporary workers.
In recent years, Collaborative Data Services has added scientific and medical customers nationwide. Outside projects—which are charged higher rates than internal users—allow the group to diversify their client base and build skill sets, update technologies and expand services without having to build those costs into Center user fees.
In these recessionary times, Sutherland says, sharing resources is part of facing changing financial realities.
“In the old days, there was an assumption that as researchers advanced in their careers, they would build a staff group around them. Some of that still has to happen, but there are an awful lot of ancillary tasks that can be farmed out to a group like ours,” he said. “The culture is changing and the need to have someone on your floor, sitting right next to you, is being subjugated to the need to make ends meet.”