The John Curtin School of Medical Research, The Australian National University

– By David Uhlhorn –

Having recently returned from a study tour of research facilities and laboratories in the US and Britain, I found that many of our equivalent Australian facilities and laboratories are as good as, if not better than, their overseas counterparts. I also found that the principles of what is termed ‘translational research’ are already being applied here, effectively and safely.

The concept of translational research encompasses the idea that there is merit in co-locating research, clinical and patient-care facilities together to foster a seamless progression of a new medical discovery from the laboratory bench to the patient’s bedside.

As with most scientific endeavours, there is often a long road from when a discovery is made in a medical research laboratory to that discovery benefiting a patient. It must first undergo rigorous clinical trials to determine its efficacy and safety.

I undertook the tour in my capacity as a director of consulting engineers Umow Lai, and as a laboratory designer for 30 years. I wanted to see first-hand how both public and private medical research facilities operate, and how their discoveries interact with the clinical and patient delivery processes.

I was particularly interested in looking at manifolding. This is the practice whereby overseas laboratories that have a large number of manifold fume cupboards to exhaust conditioned air from the space are now using their huge potential to recover the extracted heat. Present Australian regulations do not allow combining manifold fume cupboard exhaust waste.

However, at Umow Lai we have successfully introduced this technology and it has been integrated into several projects, including the new teaching and chemical sciences building at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Knowing that manifolding is widely used outside Australia, I was disappointed to find that only two of the laboratories I visited – the Paul O’Gorman Building and Li Ka-Shing Centre, both in England – recovered heat from the fume exhaust systems, even though they featured manifold fume controlled exhausts.

Zuckerman Research Center

The British laboratories were significantly further advanced in sustainable practices than their US counterparts. Of these, Paul O’Gorman was by far the most sustainable. However, I was shocked to discover that they still use run-to-waste fuel systems, i.e. laboratory systems that are connected to the cold water tap that runs back into the drain.

The laboratories I visited in Britain were the Paul O’Gorman Building and Blizard Buildings in London, and the Li Ka-Shing Centre in Cambridge. In the US I toured the Northwest Science Building in Boston, Janelia Farm Research Campus in Washington and the Zuckerman Research Center in New York. Each of these is a stand-alone building with its own identity as a research facility. Blizard and Northwest Science Buildings also included teaching spaces; however these are small in comparison to the research component. Four are located on, or close to, a major hospital campus.

Paul O’Gorman Building
The Paul O’Gorman Building is a research laboratory for the UCL Cancer Institute, University College London. Located in the heart of London near the British Museum, it is one block from the recently completed UCL Medical Centre and surrounded by several UCL medical research facilities. Paul O’Gorman is a 4500-square metre specialist cancer research facility. It is named after Paul O’Gorman, a young cancer sufferer who came to the attention of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and became a rallying point behind cancer research in Britain. There is another Paul O’Gorman cancer research facility at the University of Manchester.

Li Ka-Shing Centre

The Li Ka-Shing Centre stands in the grounds of Addenbrooke’s Hospital on the outskirts of Cambridge, and shares the campus with several other medical research institutes and the Cambridge University Teaching Hospital to form what is known as the Cambridge Biomedical Campus. The 14,000-square metre building is a specialist cancer research facility and a new $400 million laboratory for molecular biology is under construction on the site. Named after one of its benefactors, Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-Shing, the centre is the home of the Cancer Research Institute, a joint venture between Cancer Research UK and the University of Cambridge. Cancer Research UK has plans to make the Cambridge Biomedical Campus one of the top centres for cancer research in Europe. Addenbrooke’s was one of the first recognised translational research cancer centres in Britain.

Blizard Building

Located in the Whitechapel area of London and across a laneway from the Royal London Hospital, it is the home of the Institute of Cell and Molecular Science at the Queen Mary University of London. The 9600-square metre Blizard Building houses a teaching and research facility that undertakes research in a wide area of medical fields including cancer. The building is well known for its striking-looking meeting spaces that float above the main research laboratory.

Northwest Science Building

The Northwest Science Building is located on the main campus of Harvard University. This 44,100-square metre building is one of a new breed of research and teaching facilities that draws its occupants from the fields of science, medicine and engineering in the belief that cohabiting with different specialties encourages the development of new cross-disciplinary research outcomes. This approach was pioneered in facilities such as the James H. Clark (Bio-X) Center at Stanford University in the US.

Janelia Farm Research Campus

Located just outside Washington DC, Janelia Farm is one of two facilities operated by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (the other being in Chevy Chase, Maryland). The 53,950-square metre research facility is set in a landscaped campus on a 689-acre former farm, and has the second-largest green roof in the US after LEED Platinum Vancouver Convention Center. The heritage-listed farmhouse strongly influenced the design of the main laboratory building. The institute is funded entirely by a bequest from the estate of the late billionaire industrialist Howard Hughes.

Zuckerman Research Center
The Zuckerman Research Center is a specialist cancer research laboratory for the Sloan-Kettering Research Institute at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, one of the three top cancer research and treatment hospitals in the US. There are several associated Memorial Sloan-Kettering research facilities nearby. Named after one of its benefactors, Mortimer Zuckerman, the 64,400-square metre centre is on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The Zuckerman Research Center, at 23 storeys, is the tallest laboratory building in North America, and probably the tallest in the world. Constructed on the site of a former Roman Catholic school, the centre is prohibited by the terms of the land sale to undertake stem-cell research.

From my observations, I believe that Australian medical research facilities and laboratories are as good as, if not better than, many of those I visited in Britain and the US. My research also highlighted the fact that the principles of translational research are already being applied here, effectively and safely.

Umow Lai has incorporated Translational Research into its work, exemplified in the third and final stage of the redevelopment of the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National University; the second stage of the Menzies Research Institute at the University of Tasmania, and several other major research-oriented projects.

David Uhlhorn is a Director of Umow Lai, a building services engineering consultancy committed to sustainability. He visited Britain and the US in September 2009.
Umow Lai’s tenancy at 10 Yarra Street, South Yarra was the first in Victoria to be awarded a 6 Star Office Interiors v1.1 rating from the Green Building Council of Australia (April 2009). The firm has been involved in five other 6 Star Green-Star rated projects. See  www.umowlai.com.au