One of the many interesting field trips I went on while speaking at ScienceOnline09 in North Carolina was my visit to North Carolina Central University’s Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise (BRITE) facilities at North Carolina’s famous Research Triangle.
As you can see from my images, the building is lovely — it is a modern all glass-and-steel structure that appeals to so many people, especially those who work long hours and therefore feel isolated from the natural environment. However, my inner ornithologist demands that I voice my one complaint about the building’s design: the huge expanse of glass exacts a tremendous toll upon native and migratory birds. BRITE should modify the glass so birds do not mistakenly fly into it.
A small group of conference attendees and I entered the building and went for a short walk through wide softly humming corridors — which reminded me of when I worked in cancer research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
We then made ourselves comfortable in a conference room where the public relations officer, the director of the facilities, and several research scientists spoke to us about BRITE; its history and goals, its ongoing research projects and they even briefly mentioned some of their funding sources. Additionally, an undergrad (BRITE currently offers both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees) spoke to us about her educational experiences at BRITE. Of course, I must mention that many of the students at BRITE are being actively recruited from disadvantaged and minority communities.
“North Carolina lost thousands of jobs in the textile, furniture and tobacco industries,” explained Dr. David Kroll, chairperson of the pharmaceutical sciences department and leader of our tour of the facilities. “The state recognized that it had to retool, replace those jobs and now there are 55,000 people working in 450 technology companies across North Carolina.”
“BRITE demonstrates that North Carolina Central is positioned to become one of the leading biotechnology educational institutions in the country,” stated Dr. Li-An Yeh, Director of BRITE, when she spoke to us.
Clearly, everyone at this facility is proud of BRITE and of the work they are engaged in as a result of being associated with it.
As it now stands, BRITE is a new project: it is the result of an educational partnership called NCBioImpact that was formed in 2006. NCBioImpact is a collaboration between North Carolina Central University (NCCU) — a traditionally African-American university — with several other state universities, the state community college system and several North Carolina biotech companies. NCBioImpact’s goal is to make North Carolina into a national biomanufacturing research powerhouse that focuses on creating tailor-made medications for patients and new treatments and cures for genetic and acquired diseases, as well as discovering how to increase the nutritional values of food crops while simultaneously decreasing dependence on fertilizers and pesticides, and developing new methodologies for dealing with contaminated properties through the use of bioremediation.
But to do this, NCBioImpact realized they needed a large number of highly skilled professionals to meet their special needs, so they created the Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise (BRITE). They also established a faculty of nationally recognized scientists and educators and they formed a partnership with biotech companies like Eli Lilly and Company, Biogen Idec, Novozymes and Wyeth to create their undergraduate student curriculum.
“What is unique about BRITE is that half of the faculty had careers in the biotech field. They brought with them expertise that helps the students. BRITE is the bridge between education and industry,” remarked Dr. Kroll, who embodies these very same qualities, having won 11 teaching awards as well as conducting his own research on cancer drug discovery.
After learning more about the facility and its purpose, we went on a tour through some of the labs — which filled me with intense longing for my own lost research career. Here is a look at one of the many spacious and well-appointed labs at BRITE;
First, we all followed senior scientist, Mark Hughes, who is the facility’s “robotics man”, through several labs, learning about the high throughput drug screening process;
A research scientist surveys his kingdom.
Here, Mark explains fluorescence. Basically, this piece of equipment reads the change in fluorescence for microplates filled with biochemicals that are being tested for potential pharmaceutical effects;
This plastic plate with micro-dots of water (usually containing dissolved biochemicals being tested for their pharmaceutic potential) reminds me of a children’s book, which starts thusly;
I am just a raindrop,
I am smaller than small.
What am I doing here?
I have no use at all …
[The Raindrop by Brian D. McClure (2006)]
Except, contrary to that poem, microdots of particular fluids, as seen below, are extremely useful, both in my lost research career in molecular evolution and also in modern drug discovery;
This is an automated micropipettor robot that measures and adds small aliquots of specific reagents to microplates in precise order. This equipment is very accurate and, unlike human technicians, doesn’t get bored and is not prone to costly repetitive movement wrist and hand injuries;
A special robotic piece of equipment used to measure ultra-small quantities
of fluids. This improves efficiency and prevents repetitive wrist and hand injuries.
Here is a close-up of a microtitre plate, looking nearly straight down on it — this is one of many different styles of microtitre plates, mind you! I include this particular plate because I think it’s pretty;
As an added bonus, at the end of our lab tour, Mark revealed his secret hiding place where he stashes his lunch so no one eats it before he manages to find his way into the break room;
A research scientist reveals his secret hiding place.
After our lab tour, we then split up to meet with one of two research scientists on the faculty to discuss their work in more depth. Most of the group went to a computer room of sorts where they learned more about cheminformatics with Dr. Jerry Ebalounde, while my curiosity was piqued by “biosimilars” since I had never heard the word before, so I met with Dr. Jonathan Sexton. In short, biosimilars are new versions of biopharmaceuticals whose patents have expired. These drugs are usually produced via a cloned cell line, they typically have a complex molecular structure and they vary depending upon even small changes in the manufacturing process. These variations can affect their effectiveness, and may also trigger an immune response in someone who had previously not been allergic to that same pharmaceutic.
Since Jonny, as he likes to be called, is a friendly and knowledgeable man, our conversation evolved into a discussion about a large variety of pharmaceuticals, microbes, and cloned creatures …
It was one of those conversations that takes on a life of its own, a life that demands beer to slake our thirst, of course.
David Kroll, who is not a cloned creature, has his own special parking place.
So we all piled into David’s rented van (parked in his special parking place, see above) and went to a nearby pub, where our conversation about science, education and BRITE was cheerfully continued over beers and sandwiches at Tyler’s Tap Room and Restaurant;
Courtyard at American Tobacco, outside Tyler’s Tap Room and Restaurant.
Tyler’s Tap Room is located in an absolutely gorgeous old brick-and-mortar building known as American Tobacco. American Tobacco is a registered historic site that was once a tobacco warehouse, and is currently being renovated into a variety of public and commercial spaces, including pubs and restaurants, outdoor stages and a baseball field, office and radio station spaces, and apartments.
Courtyard at American Tobacco, an historic landmark in Durham, North Carolina.
After we finished our delightful lunch, we returned to the hotel where we rested for a few hours (“rested” = “drank more alcohol”) before setting off for our next event: wine tasting!