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Stanford Report, May 31, 2000

Bio-X moves off the drawing board: $7 million awarded for facilities


Stanford's pioneering Bio-X project moved into high gear this month with the awarding of $7 million in grants for the construction and upgrade of biological research facilities throughout the campus.

The grants are the first to be handed out since October 1999, when Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jim Clark donated $150 million to launch Bio-X -- an unprecedented, faculty-run program designed to give Stanford a leading role in the burgeoning fields of biotechnology and biomedicine.

Still in its formative stage, Bio-X is being administered by six committees made up of 42 faculty and staff from three schools -- Medicine, Engineering, and Humanities and Sciences.

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In February, the Bio-X Core Facilities Committee sent e-mails to all faculty members urging them to submit proposals for matching grants to upgrade or construct new bioresearch laboratories in existing buildings throughout the campus.

Of the two dozen proposals sent to the committee, 17 were approved in May, says committee chair Chaitan S. Khosla, an associate professor of chemical engineering and chemistry.

In the spirit of Bio-X, the committee awarded grants to faculty and staff from such diverse departments as psychology, chemistry, physics, mechanical engineering and genetics. Each grant averages about $412,000. Among the projects to be funded are the following:

"This is phenomenal," says psychologist John Gabrieli, principal investigator for the Cognitive Neuroscience Facility. "It gives a huge boost for the neurosciences on this campus."

Gabrieli is one of three psychology professors from the School of Humanities and Sciences who joined with 10 researchers from the School of Medicine to request matching funds to establish one the most advanced neuroimaging centers in America.

Although the facility itself will be housed in the Medical School's Lucas Center, Gabrieli says it will attract psychologists as well as faculty from the School of Engineering and many other departments involved in neurological research.

"I'm impressed that the facility is not going to be restricted to people involved in Bio-X, but will be available to all faculty," he notes.

In addition to obtaining matching funds, Gabrieli and other grant recipients will be required to create a website listing key personnel and services at their new facility.

To maintain high standards and promote interdisciplinary access, every facility also will be obligated to form an oversight committee that includes at least one faculty member from each of the schools participating in the creation of Bio-X -- Engineering, Medicine, and Humanities and Sciences.

"This is a very grassroots effort involving all the faculty in all three schools," says James A. Spudich, a professor of biochemistry who chairs the Bio-X Executive Committee.

"In the long run, the Bio-X program will facilitate all interdisciplinary sciences on campus," he adds. "It should become a way of life here."

Charles H. Kruger, dean of research who serves on the Bio-X Advisory Committee, points out that "the deans of the three schools and I have been meeting on a regular basis."

"That's a reinforcing aspect for me," Kruger notes. "Rather than being divided by parochial interest, people can come together for the shared interest of the university."

Bio-X concept

"We will fundamentally change the way science and technology is done on this campus," predicts Channing Robertson, who also serves on the Bio-X Executive Committee.

Robertson, a professor of chemical engineering, says that initially Bio-X will concentrate on five general research themes: tissue engineering; single molecule analysis and molecular structure; cognitive and systems neurosciences; imaging from molecules to humans; and biocomputation.

"The science that will be done hasn't been done elsewhere," he notes, adding that Bio-X research will have both theoretical and practical applications that fall "somewhere between the atom and the bedside."

Bio-X began two years ago when Spudich, Robertson, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu and other professors organized a grassroots effort among faculty to promote interdisciplinary research and teaching in bioscience, bioengineering and biomedicine.

"We called it Bio-X because we never came up with a name that was short enough to describe the global nature of what we want to do here," Spudich says. "It's really a philosophy, not a specific program."

From the beginning, he says, the goal has been to break down the walls separating people involved in cutting-edge bioresearch.

For example, through Bio-X, an electrical engineer might be given lab space with a neurologist to develop miniature brain implants that will allow blind people to see. Or a developmental biologist could team up with a mechanical engineer to figure out how to grow livers and other replacement organs from ordinary human stem cells.

Last October, the Bio-X concept became reality when former engineering professor Jim Clark, the founder of Netscape and Silicon Graphics, announced his $150 million donation -- the largest single gift to Stanford since the founding grant in 1885.

A few months ago, an anonymous donor pledged an additional $60 million, raising the Bio-X commitment to $210 million, of which the university has set aside $120 million to construct the James H. Clark Center for Biomedical Engineering and Sciences.

Groundbreaking for the 225,000-square-foot Clark Center begins this summer along Campus West Drive near the Medical School. Faculty representatives have been meeting with architects to come up with a unique design that will encourage accessibility and flexibility inside the center.

"The goal is to be very open, to have far fewer walls than in a typical research facility," says Alice P. Gast, professor of chemical engineering who chairs the Bio-X Design Committee.

"Intermingling these different cultures from different departments is an exciting opportunity for us," she adds.

The final design for the Clark Center will be unveiled sometime this summer, and the building should be completed by 2003.

"The center will be a forever," says Harvey Cohen, a professor of pediatrics. "Ultimately, that's how Jim Clark will be remembered. But Bio-X is so much more to me than the Clark Center."

Cohen chairs the Bio-X Interdisciplinary Initiatives Committee, which was given $3 million in April to fund new, interdisciplinary programs focusing on bioresearch, education and product development.

So far the committee has received nearly 80 proposals from a wide array of faculty members, including a law professor who wants to start a bio-ethics project. Other proposals include a program to teach researchers how to use the latest medical devices, and a seminar series on cardiovascular surgery to be conducted by surgeons and mechanical engineers.

The committee is now assessing the proposals, which range in value from $25,000 to $100,000, and will announce the grant recipients later this year.

"I look at this as venture capital dollars in academics," Cohen says. "If 20 percent of these projects turn out successful, it's going to be a tremendous bang for the buck."

Although Stanford is often credited with spawning the high-tech computer revolution, Cohen predicts that "Bio-X will take Stanford into Silicon Valley in a way where what you see today is really small stuff."

He envisions a partnership between industry and academia that will produce dramatic innovations integrating biotechnology and biomedicine with computer science.

"We're poised for that here at Stanford," Cohen maintains. "There are very few places in the country that have so many outstanding scientists in such close proximity to a major medical center."

Educational component

"Students are the lifeblood of this project," says Robertson, noting that the Bio-X Education Committee was established to create a new curriculum bridging departments across the campus.

"I'm really excited about the intersecting of physics, engineering and basic life sciences," says Education Committee chair Sharon Long, a professor of biological sciences.

She points out that committee members are in the process of determining which interdisciplinary courses already exist on campus and whether new ones should be created by 2001.

The committee is also looking at alternate, less formal educational offerings, including the continuation of the monthly Frontiers in Interdisciplinary Biosciences seminars that Bio-X initiated last fall.

The seminars, often featuring prominent researchers from Harvard, Yale and other leading universities, use clever titles to attract students and faculty from widely different fields.

For example, an April seminar was titled "Smelling with Hairy Little Noses and Feeding with Hairy Little Legs."

Before each seminar, the speaker provides a two-hour class explaining the topic of his or her presentation in terms that are easy to understand.

"We want to do everything we can do to break down the barriers between disciplines, which is often just a matter of learning each other's language," says Spudich.

The next seminar, called "Robustness, Necessity and Biological Complexity," will be presented by electrical engineer John Doyle of Caltech at 4 p.m. June 1 in Room 200 at the Teaching Center of the Science and Engineering Quad.

Bio-X also has been sponsoring a series of Saturday symposia in which several experts join together to discuss specific topics such as tissue engineering.

Faculty recruitment

Since Jim Clark's announcement last fall, the Bio-X program has attracted international attention, especially in academic circles.

"Bio-X has become a real drawing card for Stanford," notes Spudich, adding that prominent faculty from other institutions have expressed interest in joining the Bio-X project.

One leading scientist recruited in part because of Bio-X is Axel Brünger, a professor of molecular physics and biochemistry from Yale, considered one of the world's foremost crystallographers. Brünger will be coming to Stanford with a triple appointment: in neurology and in molecular and cellular physiology along with a faculty position at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory (SSRL).

SSRL also received one of this month's 17 Core Facilities grants to improve its X-ray crystallography system.

"There are always going to be people who are skeptical of Bio-X, but I consider it an experiment," says William C. Mobley, professor of neurology and a member of the Bio-X Executive Committee.

"I hope in 10 years it's gained the respect and loyalty of the faculty. It could change everything at Stanford." SR