The tall, bearded man in the sweaty T-shirt could be mistaken for a mover. He's humping boxes and directing men with dollies to the correct rooms.
But there's more going on here, in Oregon Health & Science University's Knight Cancer Research Building. Every 30 seconds his phone bings with a text, like the tinny bell on an e-scooter on Moody Street. The movers in their logo polo shirts, ask him about the alarm on a huge box they're carrying. It's a minus-80-degree freezer, he explains calmly, telling them where to put it. It contains plasma samples from over 160 patients. They are being moved from the building next door, and if the freezer stays unplugged too long they will be ruined.
Chris Boniface, this man directing traffic, isn't just the lab manager for the Spellman lab, headed by Dr. Paul Spellman, the principle investigator in multiple areas of genetics-related cancer research, including the detection of tumors using cell-free DNA. Boniface also oversees the development of these techniques for use in clinical diagnostics, in one of the leading labs for this research in the country.
It's was move-in Monday on Aug. 20 at the KCRB (which is part of the larger Knight Cancer Institute, which includes treatment as well as research) a $190 million, six-story building on Southwest Moody Avenue, between the Marquam and Ross Island bridges. The center was made possible by the Knight Cancer Challenge, in which Nike co-founder Phil Knight put in $500 million in matching funds if OHSU raised an equal amount.
Of all the new medical buildings popping up on the old waterfront, none carries more promise than this research lab, where the goal is pretty simple: cure cancer or die trying.
Boniface's team members are the first ones into the space. They used to be in cramped quarters "on the hill." Then they received funding, started hiring, and moved into the Collaborative Sciences Building, which is soon to be named the Robertson Collaborative Sciences Building, at 2730 S.W. Moody Ave.
Now they're in a broad, long building designed by SRG Partnership to have a large footprint that encourages the inhabitants to mingle.
He says his biggest concern is forgetting something. "It's a huge, logistic weight. Even though the people running things are doing an incredible job, it's still a lot for a lab manager to do."
Boniface shows off the sightlines of the equipment corridor, then the long hall with the sawtooth-style windows, which are the trademark of the south side of the building.
"They call this the 'collabrador.' I call it the 'collaboradoodle,' " he jokes. "The idea is they've packed us in so tight that people working on different things, like microscopy, or DNA sequencing work, will be able to bounce ideas off each other."
Although there is more space in the new building, the collabrador is designed for sharing. Teams may drop in and out to use equipment at will.
Boniface is interrupted every few minutes. Someone wants to know how many tall cupboards they're getting. He tells the person to switch the stickers. Someone else is unpacking their desk box, finding the proper placement for a Ty teddy bear and water flask. One research student sits down and gets on with some work, oblivious of the mess around him.
'Wet' and 'dry' research
This is part of the Spellman lab. It is called a "wet" lab, although Spellman's work also includes a computational "dry" lab. The physical part of scientific research happens on one side, sometimes with immortalized cell cultures grown in sterile incubators. There are chrome vacuum taps on every bench for sucking out the medium in which cells are grown, along with rows of steel shelving and racks for drying bottles.
"This will be Gordon (Mills') space," Boniface says. KCI Director Brian Druker recruited Mills, calling him "one of the most credentialed, highly revered scientists in the field of oncology."
It will be used "for tissue culture, growing mammalian cells, treating them with therapies, seeing how they respond, trying to understand pathways, mechanisms of resistance to therapies. ..." Boniface says. "We might be culturing cells for other reasons. ... At my bench, it's mostly DNA preparation from blood plasma and tumor samples from the hospital. I build sequencing libraries from tumor tissue and blood plasma tissue and sequence those."
The KCRB has large areas given over to computational work — including most of the fourth floor. Boniface has a bench on the west side of the building and a write-up desk on this side.
Like many who do computational work, he has a laptop computer, but he uses it to access a much bigger number-crunching computer.
"Intel donated and sold OHSU a computational cluster, a massive server databank, that has several hundred terabytes of memory, and hundreds of processing cores," he says. They connect to it by fiber-optic cable.
His team writes their own scripts for sequencing DNA.
"The amount of data generated when you sequence the human genome is huge. You need some pretty powerful computers," Boniface says.
"It's a super high-speed, fast connection, and it's used all over the lab for DNA, for image analysis. It's OHSU's cluster, just for OHSU. Sections are cordoned off for clinical use by a firewall. There is no way to get on the cluster if you don't have cluster credentials, and no way to get into the clinical part. There's a few layers."
Ironically, for all the collaborative power of the new building, the fast connection to a supercomputer allows some people to work remotely.
"We use Secure FTP, with a Linux browser. It's all encrypted; you just need credentials. There's a lot of flexibility; people work from home all the time," Boniface says.
Walking around, Boniface points out that the conference rooms are on the well-lit east side of the building overlooking the Willamette River. But the primary investigators, such as Gordon Mills and Paul Spellman, have small windowless offices. "All of the P.I. offices are not near windows. There's only a certain amount of windows they (the designers) could have, and they (the P.I.s) said let the workers get the light."
On this Monday morning in August, some workers are installing the huge street-level LED screens that flash the name of the Knight Cancer Research Building day and night. On the first floor there's a 230-seat auditorium, which will be used for lectures. This is a research building, so it will be swarmed with those with doctorates and mid-career scientists, rather than undergraduates and patients. (Although they do work with patients, this isn't where patients come for cancer treatment.)
Other workers are installing bike racks in the bike garage. With occupancy set at 650 people but only 60 parking spaces (including some for guests), this is a place where you are expected to walk, bike, ride the streetcar or bus, skateboard or e-scooter to work.
The building was built with the architects and construction teams based on-site so they could better collaborate. Now they're mostly gone, leaving a few subcontractors to paint walls, weld planters and arrange chairs in the common spaces. But there is another aspect of collaboration to consider — the scientists themselves collaborate with other teams around the world.
"I couldn't count the number of collaborations with other labs in this country and around the world on two hands," says Boniface of the Spellman lab. "Working for Paul, he likes to have his fingers in a lot of pots."
Their work with new techniques for finding DNA circulating in blood is being explored in just a handful of institutions around the country.
Boniface says they don't collaborate in the same room as teams from other universities and not even with nearby schools like the University of Washington. It's all online.
"They might be collecting samples for us, or have a study going and want us to process samples for them. We'd do all the sequencing of the tumors they acquire and do the analysis," Boniface says.
If the builders have done their job properly, the scientists will be able to do theirs.
At the Spellman Lab, the research is out there. It is all about advance cases of the disease, where "It's too late for early detection," Dr. Paul Spellman, PI at the Spellman Lab, told the Business Tribune.
The move into the KCRB was "pretty routine. This is the third time in seven years," he explained. "Last time we moved we had managed to accumulate a lot of stuff, we had 20 years of dirt and gunk. We're fresh and new. Oh and I was in Hawaii last week so I managed to avoid most of the work of the move," he joked.
He is looking forward to being on the floor with not just 10 percent of his collaborators but 90 percent.
He's especially pleased that many of his computational lab people will be together on the fourth floor. "We suffered from segmentation. It's been a limitation. Go to (the offices of) Google or Facebook they all work in big collaborative settings, wearing headphones…If they need something they can quickly interact."
"And it allows Chris, a sequencing expert, who runs a DNA sequencing machine and is really good at coming up with strategies for sophisticated DNA analysis – he's happy to help folks out. People now don't necessarily know who he is. In our space he's going to be with people, and see them. On the way to coffee, or to the poke restaurant, there'll be the ability in interact with the people who don't know they need us."
With the wide floors and a high-density the building has a big a footprint as possible. "It's as big as can be, for what we could afford."
Spellman admits in the CLSB he works on the 6th floor but never goes down to the 5th floor. "Well, except to get my teeth cleaned."
Taylor Kelley, a clinical coordinator and research assistant, also gets bench space in the new lab.
"I screen and recruit participants for human research, tracking them, seeing if they meet the criteria, consenting them, and following them during and after their treatment for cancer."
He is hands-on with real people.
"I draw their blood, and I process it. Chris does all the magic and gets the results."
Kelley walks around the campus, up and down to the hill a lot.
He says of the new space "I was expecting less lighting, I like it. It seems a little more compact, we were pretty spoiled in the CLSB."
He's not bothered that it's more compact. "I keep a clean bench space, so I always have bench space," There are boxes of wipes for keeping things sterile, and a lot of pipettes. He describes much of his job as "Moving things around in tubes."
Mostly Kelley is looking forward to the new work atmosphere he hopes will emerge.
"I am excited to run into new people studying cancer. The whole idea is to be more collaborative."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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