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A new structural biology research center founded by nine New York institutions, including Columbia University, is about to open its doors at the campus of City College of New York in Harlem. Housing some of the most powerful equipment available today to study protein and macromolecule structure, the New York Structural Biology Center is unique among such facilities in this country. Future equipment purchases will augment the center's already formidable capabilities.

Researchers covet protein structure data because it helps them understand how proteins function in response to the binding of drugs, hormones, and other molecules. So far, Columbia researchers only have used the center's nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy machines in a test phase, due to their recent installation. But university investigators already are excited about the instruments and the NYSBC's expected role as a gathering place for the New York protein research community.

"I anticipate many more collaborations between research groups in the city as a result of the center," says Dr. Arthur Palmer, professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics and a member of the center's NMR operating committee. The center's members are discussing ideas for workshops, courses, and seminars, says Dr. Ann McDermott, professor of chemistry at Morningside Heights and another NMR committee member.

Another advantage for Columbia and other area researchers is the center's location—"just a subway ride away" in a building leased from the City University of New York on the CCNY campus, Dr. Palmer says. The Columbia University Health Sciences campus has an NMR facility but it cannot meet the researchers' needs. Some Columbia researchers even have flown to the University of Wisconsin to use equipment there.

Keeping New York competitive in biomedical research and having the latest-generation instruments in an accessible location spurred the creation of the facility. In 1997, the New York City Partnership Policy Center, a non-profit group, said the decline of market share of federal funding for biomedical research projects in New York could hurt the city's long-term economic and intellectual prospects. The need to provide New York researchers with state-of-the-art tools, the prohibitive cost of the equipment, and the difficulty of placing highly sensitive magnets in an urban environment made a central, shared resource for structural biology compelling, says Dr. Willa Appel, NYSBC chief operating officer and former partnership chair.

By late 1997, Dr. Appel and colleagues convinced local research institution leaders that such a center was necessary. Along with Columbia and CUNY, the center's initial members are Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; Mount Sinai School of Medicine; New York University; Rockefeller University; Wadsworth Center of the New York State Health Department; and the Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

Each organization provided a capital contribution to start the center and pays annual operating costs. A two-tiered membership structure required members to make capital contributions of either $1.35 million or $500,000. Currently, the center has an annual operations budget of about $2 million.

Members have representatives on the board of directors. Dr. David Hirsh, Robert Wood Johnson Jr. Professor and Chairman of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, and Dr. David Cohen, vice president and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, are Columbia's board members.

Along with the institutions' support, the center has received federal, state, city, and private funding, including a $15 million grant from the state for cryo-electron microscopy and NMR equipment and more than $10 million in competitive grants from the National Institutes of Health. The NIH grants include one for $4.5 million from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to buy a 900 megahertz magnet, the most powerful one now available.

Currently, three large NMR spectrometers—two 800 MHz and one 750 MHz magnets—are installed at the former CCNY gymnasium and swimming facility. Nine-hundred MHz, 800 MHz, 600 MHz, and 500 MHz magnets will follow with others added as needed, depending on available funds.

NMR spectroscopy uses strong magnetic fields to generate changes in the electromagnetic properties of atoms. The changes can be detected by radio frequency waves. The frequency wave data then is analyzed to identify the three-dimensional structure of a protein and to describe how one molecule interacts with another in space and time.

The center's NMR machines can determine molecular structures in a few weeks for problems that otherwise might take years using existing equipment at one of the member universities, says Dr. David Cowburn, the center's president.

In addition to the spectrometers, the center will purchase specialized electron microscopes that cool and slow down molecular machinery, such as ribosomes or viruses, to make it easier to study them, says Columbia's Dr. Wayne Hendrickson, University Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics and member of NYSBC's cryo-electron microscopy committee.

The center's directors are optimistic about the future of protein research. "We hope to generate new insights in basic science and a deeper understanding of human disease and treatments through the center's technology," Dr. Cowburn says.


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