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Children's digs reflect 'big-time' research mission

Luis Fábregas
| Sunday, Oct. 26, 2008

Scientists at Children's Hospital next week begin descending on their new digs in a research tower on the hospital's Lawrenceville campus.

It is the first part of a carefully orchestrated move that will culminate in April with the relocation of patients into the $625 million hospital.

The 10-story research building, on the lower edge of the Penn Avenue campus, will bring together hundreds of pediatric scientists jammed in a building half its size in Oakland.

"This is a dream," Dr. David H. Perlmutter, Children's scientific director, said during a recent tour. "This is a statement that we're going to do big-time research on child health issues. We're going to be leaders. We're going to do it in a big-time way."

Perlmutter exuded confidence and pride as he showed off the tower's laboratories -- long, open rooms that take up half the floor and give scientists expanded working areas.

"This is the most radical open lab you can design," he said, walking into a room of 24 bays that will each accommodate four laboratory workers. "It forces sharing of equipment, and that drives down the cost of research."

The open design of the laboratories -- which occupy six-and-a-half floors of the 300,000-square-foot building -- compels scientists to collaborate, something Perlmutter called a virtue of modern science. Altogether, there's enough space to eventually double the number of the center's 70 principal investigators.

The hospital's pediatric faculty continues to grow. With the University of Pittsburgh as academic partner, officials have recruited about 150 pediatrics faculty in the past five years, to bump up the total to 245 faculty members.

Those scientists, most of whom engage in clinical work in addition to research, bring in an unprecedented amount of federal grants from the National Institutes of Health. Since Perlmutter came to Children's in June 2001, NIH grants have jumped to $24 million from about $6 million. Such rapid growth means Children's ranks sixth in the country among pediatrics institutions getting the most federal awards.

"If you're doing great research, you're a place people want to come to," he said.

The quality of the facility's space matters, as well, said Dr. Raphael Hirsh, the hospital's chief of pediatric rheumatology.

"We're going from a building that was designed decades ago, that is not conducive to 21st-century research, to a state-of-the-art building with the latest technology," Hirsh said.

Hirsh said he is eager to move his lab with about a dozen researchers and workers who study the causes of arthritis in children. The illness, commonly misunderstood as an adult-only disease, affects 1 in 1,000 children, he said.

The building has been designed so that equipment such as refrigerators and floor centrifuges are in rooms just outside the laboratory space.

One of the building's floors will be occupied by the Richard King Mellon Foundation Institute for Pediatric Research, whose scientists will focus on cellular and molecular biology. The institute was created with a $23 million gift from the Richard King Mellon Foundation.

Unlike its current site, the research tower will be joined to the main hospital building. It will house the hospital's conference center, a detail well-received by researchers who welcome the accessibility and visibility among their clinical counterparts.

The move into the research tower is expected to take about six weeks, said Eric Hess, vice president and project executive. Officials then will gear up for the February move of about 1,000 faculty and administrative workers.

Patient care areas will start relocating in April, beginning with outpatient services. Hospitalized patients will begin moving May 2, Hess said.

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