Genomics are now in Downtown’s DNA with Hudson Square center

Lab workers at the genome center behind glass walls to keep their working area pristine.  Photo by Heather Dubin
Lab workers at the genome center behind glass walls to keep their working area pristine. Photo by Heather Dubin

BY HEATHER DUBIN  |  The bioscience frontier now has a new epicenter in Downtown Manhattan with the official opening of the New York Genome Center last week. The 170,000-square-foot medical research facility will be a hub for collaboration between academia, industry and clinicians, with 16 participating universities and hospitals so far.

Located at 101 Sixth Ave., between Watts and Grand Sts., the genome center was created with more than $140 million in funds from New York City, New York State and several foundations and philanthropies, including Mayor Bloomberg. The center occupies seven floors of the 23-story building, which formerly housed the 32BJ union headquarters.

The mayor was a keynote speaker at the Sept. 19 ribbon-cutting ceremony. About 300 people attended the event, and learned how the genome center will help alter the field of science in order to better understand and treat human disease.

Dr. Robert Darnell, the genome center’s president and scientific director, said the center for genetic research will transform medicine and save people’s lives.

He spoke of a revolution in medicine where computer technology has been brought to the world of biology.

“This is causing a second wave of revolution in the way we do science,” he said. “It’s no longer done by small labs, instead by large consortia, and different kinds of people and different kinds of science.”

The genome center will foster a genomic consortium, which Darnell stressed as a necessity for the future. Scientists, medical doctors and biotechnology partners will work together across disciplines and multi-institutional projects.

Photo courtesy of the Mayor’s Office Mayor Bloomberg gave remarks at the ribbon-cutting for the New York Genome Center, to which he has contributed funds as part of his philanthropy for medical research.
Photo courtesy of the Mayor’s Office
Mayor Bloomberg gave remarks at the ribbon-cutting for the New York Genome Center, to which he has contributed funds as part of his philanthropy for medical research.

“This is not unusual — it’s completely unheard of,” Darnell emphasized. “Genome centers don’t do clinical medicine, they do genomic science — except the New York Genome Center, we’re going to do both.”

He described the sharing of clinical information, and the collaborative effort of his associates, as a much-needed synergy to approach problems too complex to solve alone.

The regional center will eventually become a “global academic institute,” he said, and is experiencing a tremendous upgrade from its previous 3,000-square-foot space at Rockefeller University on the Upper East Side.

To demonstrate the value of genetic research, Darnell revealed a recent triumph from researchers at the center who have been looking for months at a series of cancers from 10 different patients who are all related. Two days earlier, researchers had made a vitally important breakthrough.

“They solved a complete mystery about a kind of cancer: how it comes about, how we can diagnosis it and, most importantly, how we might treat it in the future,” he said. “I believe that we can use genomics to start to make sick people better.”

The technology available today has drastically increased the speed to find mutations that can cause disease.

“We can sequence a person in a day for $3,500,” Darnell said. “That was undreamed of a decade ago.” This is done with an Illumina HiSeq-2500 machine, which is capable of reading a person’s complete DNA at one time.

Currently, the center has 16 Illumina 2500s, and plans call for a total of 80. Each machine costs $1 million to operate. Within the span of a day, the center is able to generate a trillion base pairs of DNA sequence.

Dr. Tom Maniatis, chairperson of the New York Genome Center’s scientific and clinical steering committee, was introduced by Darnell as the driving force behind the center. Preliminary meetings for the facility began three years ago, and Maniatis, who was integral in founding the center, joked it all started because they had a “pretty foolish idea.”

This idea morphed into the Sixth Ave. genome center, which now serves as a model for the future of medicine and biotechnology.

“The New York Genome Center will not only provide large-scale sequencing using state-of-the-art technology,” Maniatis said, “but will bring together the entire New York community to tackle the problem of making biological and medical sense of large data sets.”

Bloomberg was the final speaker, and prefaced his comments with a good health report.

“I feel fine, but if I keel over, you should know, all the philanthropy stops,” he joked. “I tried to explain that to Johns Hopkins.”

On a more serious note, Bloomberg praised New York City as a place of innovation, for commerce, culture, science and industry.

“Innovation seems to be in our DNA,” he said.

Science is a fast-moving industry, and Bloomberg has been instrumental in bringing it to New York. In addition to the $5 million his administration financed to cover the startup cost of the genome center, he also contributed to the Alexander Center for Life Science, another collaborative institute with pharmaceutical labs, and is developing science facilities at the Brooklyn Army Terminal.

Bloomberg noted that researchers in Manhattan receive $1.4 billion in funding, and that the city over all gets $64 billion in research funding from the federal National Institute of Health.

“Our administration investing in the New York Genome Center is part of our overall strategy called the ‘Innovative Economy in New York,’ ” he said. Bloomberg said he wants to attract people to the Big Apple with creative jobs and good living conditions.

As a parting shot, Bloomberg offered some advice to both Drs. Darnell and Maniatis.

“This is the logical place for the New York Genome Center,” he said. “Bob and Tom, let me just say what I say to all my new employees — don’t screw it up.”

With a seven-floor, cutting-edge facility and room for growth — there are currently only 51 employees — the center is bound to find talent to fill the seats of its cubicles and labs.

William Fair, the center’s vice president for strategic operations, led a tour of the place. The center contains administrative offices, a board room, conference rooms and a training room equipped with a flat-screen TV, a huge white dry-erase board, stools and a couch. There are also areas for researchers to pause for coffee, or work together on a deep-purple couch around a flat-screen TV.

“The center is designed to promote collaboration, with glass divides, informal and formal rooms and an outside garden,” Fair explained.

The view of the city from the center’s garden matches the genome center’s logo. There are interconnecting staircases, the walls are painted bright orange, and there is plenty of light in the labs and the lab write-up areas. Even the  washroom has a spectacular view.

The DNA is kept in large freezers before it goes onto the sequencing machines. There are 10 freezers, and one contained a few small boxes of RNA samples.

There are several different labs throughout the buildings, an innovation lab, a sample prep room, a production sequencing lab and a Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments-certified lab for 43 states, excluding New York, which they are working on. It is a difficult certification to obtain, and only Columbia University and Mount Sinai are C.L.I.A. certified in Manhattan.

Although there are currently 51 employees at the New York Genome Center, many more are anticipated to join. The plan is to have 300 people by 2014, and 500 by five years after that.

“We’re looking for people good with big data who can interpret it quickly, and see patterns emerging,” Fair said. “We need people to take complex data and make it simpler,” he added.