New centers at medical schools provide centralized access to the increasingly powerful tools and specialized expertise that drive modern biology.
In a small, darkened room in the Ward Building at Northwestern University Medical School's downtown Chicago campus, microscopist Maya Moody dials up the AIDS virus. Working in the dim, green glow cast by the workstation of her transmission electron microscope, Moody deftly maneuvers the image until the virus particles, lurking around the margins of a blood cell, come into focus.
It is here, under the business end of a state-of-the-art --and very expensive-- machine, that Moody provides scientists at Northwestern with images to probe the secrets of this viral killer, and for many other critical phenomena that occur among cells or within the molecular machinery of a single cell.
The machine at her fingertips, enhanced by sophisticated new electronics and a digital camera, forms the heart of Northwestern's Cell Imaging Facility. The facility, established with assistance from the Institute, also includes several other types of microscopes, as well as the equipment to prepare delicate samples and manipulate high-quality digital pictures.
Northwestern's Cell Imaging Facility is among many such core facilities that U.S. medical schools have developed over the last decade. Like the others, it provides centralized access to the increasingly powerful tools and specialized expertise that drive modern biology.
"You can't set these things up individually," said Jonathan Jones, a Northwestern cell biologist who chairs the oversight committee for the facility. "These days the machinery is so expensive there is no way I can afford it, yet it is absolutely essential to the research that I do."
Northwestern is one of 30 medical schools in the United States that shared an $80-million shot in the arm last year from HHMI to maintain their critical research activities in the face of severe funding pressures and rising research costs. Many of the schools are using their grants to reinvigorate or establish new core research facilities.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison, for example, has used its HHMI grant to develop transgenic animal and biostatistics computing facilities. The University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine has created a viral vector core facility. Other centralized cores have been established with HHMI support at several other medical schools.
Researchers use the facilities to plumb the deepest mysteries of biology. Like the big optical telescopes used by astronomers to look ever deeper into space and time, the new tools of cutting-edge biology are often far too expensive for the research budget of any single scientist.
At Northwestern, the presence of the Cell Imaging Facility and the Transgenic Mouse Facility at the Northwestern-affiliated Children's Memorial Institute for Education and Research has had consequences that outstrip the simple assemblage of specialized equipment, according to Robert Decker, associate dean for research and graduate studies in the medical school.
"Strong, stable core infrastructure makes it easier for us to recruit new faculty and retain established faculty," said Decker. "If we can provide core support, investigators can direct funds toward hiring postdocs [and] doing research. They can be more productive."
Moreover, such facilities require a core of specialized technical expertise and equipment, making them a crossroads of interdisciplinary research, said John Evans, executive dean at the University of Vermont's College of Medicine, where HHMI funds helped establish a core facility for X-ray crystallography.
The goal, Evans said, is to create an "intellectual nucleus," a place where scientists come together and attack fundamental questions of biomedical science. "Science should be question driven, not technology driven," he said. "The core facility gives scientists the opportunity, using very sophisticated technology, to address their unique questions" in collaboration with the people who know how best to deploy the technology.