UI Has High Hopes for New Institute for Biomedical Discovery

Monday, October 8, 2007
By Brian Morelli

Iowa City Press-Citizen

Milan Sonka, a University of Iowa electrical and computer engineering professor, collaborates with medical faculty on biomedical imaging, which can be used for robotic surgery.

He works in the College of Engineering Seamans Center and crosses the Iowa River to various medical buildings about three times per day, he said.

"The biggest obstacle right now is to include 80 faculty members and their students that are located in every imaginable building across campus," Sonka said. "It can be made much better to put people in the same place."

Sonka will be one of about 70 faculty expected to work at the planned Institute for Biomedical Discovery. Still in the design stage, the 200,000-square-foot facility is slated as an interdisciplinary research center that combines faculty from medicine, engineering and biological sciences, among others.

As the final piece of a three-building overhaul of the health science campus, UI officials are high on the planned Institute for Biomedical Discovery. The $120 million price tag is significantly larger than other building projects around campus, and it jumped to the top of the building priority list seemingly overnight.

The space is supposed to pave the way for cutting edge discovery in neurosciences, aging and regenerative medicine. This could include studies on stem cell research, Alzheimer's disease and muscular dystrophy.

"This is a different paradigm that people use for academic buildings," said Michael Apicella, a microbiology professor who is leading a faculty committee that is trying to identify the programming that will occur in the building. "(These buildings) are not new. It is happening at other places, but it is new here."

Apicella said interdisciplinary research is occurring right now, but it is spread all over campus.

"I just hope this building can make it expand. That is where the best ideas come from," he said, noting the personal computer was born out of this type of cross-disciplinary collaboration. "This is an area that universities have to start thinking about getting into terms of development."

Steve Maravetz, the director of Health Science Relations, said another reason to create the center was to better compete for funding from National Institutes of Health. Over five-years, between the 1990s and 2000s, NIH doubled its research grants, which meant there was a greater opportunity for cutting edge research.

Last month, UI secured its second largest NIH grant ever, a five-year, $34 million award to expand Institute for Clinical and Translational Science, a multidisciplinary research, teaching and community outreach program. That may be based in the biomedical discovery building, Maravetz said.

The design of the facility would virtually form a massive horseshoe with the first two buildings in the master plan.

Those are the Carver Biomedical Research Building, a $43 million, 135,000-square-foot building completed in August 2005, and the Medical Education and Research Facility, an about $57 million project completed in 2002.

"While we haven't begun formal design, we expect the architecture from the first two buildings will be harmonious whole and represent entry point and center of the health science campus," said campus and facility planning director Rodney Lehnertz.

The budget of the project -- $30 million expected from federal contributions, a $30 million, three-year state appropriation, $30 million from UI's pocketbook and $30 million in philanthropic dollars -- overshadows other projects. For example, it is far pricier than new building projects like the $37 million hygienic laboratory or the $48 million public health building.

Lehnertz said the budget size is largely do to with the high costs for laboratory space and cutting edge technology. As far as the fast rise on his priority list, that is largely due to the interest and financial support that is coming rapidly from all over -- UI, donors and the state.

"There is a lot of support from the state, and there should be," said State Sen. Robert Dvorsky, D-Coralville, who has been a strong advocate. "It is a fundamental change in the way we are doing things, and will have lasting benefits around the state.

"There could lead to endless research benefits that could find cures for disease, better procedures for health professionals and better training," he said. "This is going to make UI and (University Hospitals) among the national leaders."