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Chances are, you learned this simple concept on the playground: It’s fun to toss a ball into the air, but sharing that ball yields a more exciting and fulfilling experience. At St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, that fundamental idea underlies the success of the institution’s state-of-the-art shared resources.
St. Jude scientists have access to an impressive array of shared resources, also known as core facilities. Because they are centralized, these facilities help St. Jude make the best use of donor dollars and accelerate research —allowing scientists to make discoveries and find cures as quickly as possible.
The services offered range from genome sequencing and protein production to grants management and vector development. Most other research organizations outsource such services or charge high prices for investigators to use specialized equipment. Because of the convenience and the relatively low cost of St. Jude shared resources, the hospital’s core facilities have become an important draw for scientists who are looking for the best place to make a difference.
When postdoctoral fellow Jason Rawlings, PhD, of Biochemistry arrived at St. Jude in 2005, he marveled at how quickly he could complete experiments, thanks to the hospital’s shared resources.
“I was like a kid in a candy store,” he says. “Many research institutions offer nothing like these core facilities. At other places, if you wanted to sequence DNA, typically you’d prepare the sample, put it in the mail and send it off. It would arrive at the other facility in a day or two. They might run the sample several days later. Then it would take them a couple of days to get the data onto the Web where it could be downloaded. So typically it would take about a week from the time the sample is mailed until the time you can expect to receive the data. But at St. Jude, I just go downstairs and hand my sample to the people at the Hartwell Center for Bioinformatics and Biotechnology. I go back upstairs and continue my work; the next day, the data are available on my computer. That means I’m getting the results in one day as opposed to seven.
“So,” he says, “you’re looking at a sevenfold increase in productivity.”
In recent years, St. Jude has enhanced its existing core facilities and developed new ones. For instance, an expanded flow cytometry facility is slated to open at St. Jude in the summer of 2010. Flow cytometry measures the amount of DNA and proteins on cells. The process is often used to identify different types of cancers and to determine how well those diseases will respond to particular types of therapy.
The hospital has also enhanced its cell and tissue imaging capabilities. In the past, microscopes and personnel were spread throughout the hospital. Now equipment and experts are in a central location convenient to researchers across campus. Investigators have access to services ranging from transmission electron microscopy and confocal laser scanning microscopy to image analysis, cell microinjection and live cell imaging. Researchers can either drop off their samples with the experts in the core facilities or undergo training so that they can perform the experiments themselves.
St. Jude investigators say the combination of staffing expertise and high-quality facilities bring a new level of excitement to their work.
“The cell and tissue imaging facility not only provides laboratories like mine with the opportunity to use state-of-the-art equipment, but it also provides access to an experienced support staff to help plan, carry out and analyze experiments,” observes Joseph Opferman, PhD, of Biochemistry. “By working closely with the facility’s staff, my laboratory has been able to incorporate cutting-edge methodology into our research. These studies have helped unveil important scientific discoveries and are helping to determine our future research directions.”
Jian Zuo, PhD, of Developmental Neurobiology, is a vocal supporter of the hospital’s shared resources.
“One of the main attractions of St. Jude is its core facilities; they’re marvelous,” he says. “You name it—cell imaging, proteomics, sequencing, the transgenic core, genomics—it’s just outstanding. It’s hard to find any other place that offers such an amazing collection of top-notch equipment, short turnaround time and availability of experts.”
Core facilities at many institutions are run by faculty members from specific departments, who bring their personal research interests and priorities to the tasks. But at St. Jude, the core facilities are shared by all researchers, meaning access to equipment is allocated in an unbiased fashion.
“Other institutions may have pieces of equipment scattered throughout their facility, with different levels of access to the technology,” says Michael Dyer, PhD, co-leader of the Developmental Therapeutics for Solid Malignancies Program. But at St. Jude, these services are very much integrated. That integration demands a lot of coordination.”
St. Jude has created a laboratory management system that allows scientists to use one single portal for requesting services, retrieving data and generating reports. If an investigator sends samples to several areas for testing, all details about those tests—including data generated—are available to that scientist at one location online. Known as Shared Resource Management, the system allows researchers to requisition services, retrieve data and generate reports quickly and easily.
“Shared Resource Management allows us to manage and track samples,” says Ron Smith, vice president of scientific operations. “It’s a great tool to manage workflow as well as utilization of the cores.”
Faculty members across the institution attribute the success of the hospital’s shared resources to the foresight of St. Jude Scientific Director James Downing, MD.
“Dr. Downing has an incredible vision of what he wants from the perspective of the shared resources,” says Chris Calabrese, PhD, who oversees one of the hospital’s nearly 40 core facilities. “We’re small but perfectly formed. We have the correct technologies. We have investigators who ask the right scientific questions. We have the best laboratory models. We have state-of-the art facilities.
“The one thing about science is that it never stands still,” he explains. “Technology is always advancing. We will keep pushing the frontiers to help people answer their questions.”
Reprinted from Promise Spring 2010