Wright State University is readying to open its $37 million Neuroscience Engineering Collaboration Building, a structure university leaders promise will be a unique hub where neurology, medicine, engineering and computer science will meet.
“It’s safe to say there’s no building like this in the world,” said Timothy Cope, chair and professor of Wright State’s Department of Neuroscience, Cell Biology and Physiology.
“It’s going to put you guys on the map, definitely, for advances in neuroscience research,” said Melissa Harrington, director of the Delaware Center for Neuroscience Research at Delaware State University in Dover, Del. “It’s going to be a huge draw for recruitment.”
Neuroscience is receiving growing attention, especially as Americans age and problems — such as stroke and Alzheimers’ Disease — become more prevalent. In April 2013, President Barack Obama announced a $100 million brain science research effort that backers hope will do for neurology and neuroscience what the human genome project did for the study of genes.
But the new Wright State building is an exclamation point of sorts on a long-evolving trend in the Dayton region. Local hospital systems for years have nurtured their own expertise in neurosciences, neurology and neurobiology. The 2005 Department of Defense’s Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, process brought the 711th Human Performance Wing to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
“There’s an incremental effect and there’s a cumulative effect, which is really transformational for the region and for the state,” said Bryan Bucklew, president and chief executive of the Greater Dayton Area Hospital Association. “We’re seeing now the transformational part of this.”
Neuroscience is a relatively young field, Harrington said. But it’s a field poised to make advances against conditions, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, she believes.
“That’s why states are jumping on this bandwagon,” she said. “It’s an area of biomedical research that everyone sees continuing to grow.”
Dr. Kip Ludwig is program director for the National Institute of Neurological Disorders & Stroke, which is part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. He said investments in neuroscience research are happening across the country.
“It’s fantastic,” Ludwig said. “Not that I’m 100 years old or anything, but I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Between engineering and medicine
The NEC building officially opens on April 16. Campus visitors will immediately see the structure is found between Wright State’s Russ Engineering Building and its School of Medicine.
That’s no accident, Cope said.
“It’s actually part of the university’s master plan,” said Robert E.W. Fyffe, the university’s vice president for research and dean of its Graduate School. “We now have a (campus) research corridor, essentially.”
The building was designed for “translational research,” Fyffe said, a space where research can be taken from the lab to physicians and clinicians — and back again.
“We actually looked very carefully not only at the basic research that can be done, but also how it can be translated to help patients ultimately.” Fyffe said.
Neuroscience has always been interdisciplinary, blending medicine and surgery with engineering and technology. Dr. Bryan Ludwig, chair of Premier Health’s Clinical Neuroscience Institute and a neuro-intervention specialist, said he works with mechanical engineers in his own grant-funded research into brain fluid dynamics. And that’s not unusual, he said.
“It does tie into much more than medical care,” Ludwig said.
In the past decade, federal funding for neuroscience research at Wright State has grown by about 50 percent, even with the effects of the recent recession and federal budgetary sequestration, Fyffe said.
About $1 million came through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to purchase imaging systems for neuroscience, he added. The portfolio has also grown with new funding from partners such as Premier and Dayton Children’s, who have invested in their own personnel and infrastructure, he said.
The building itself
The NEC has no traditional classrooms. Instead, over four floors and 90,000 total square feet of space, it offers lab space, auditoriums, space for sensors and heavy equipment, “clean” rooms for sterile work, meeting space and more.
Graduate students won’t be sequestered in individual labs, Fyffe said. Instead, they’ll be gathered together in common areas “to be part of the drive toward new ideas and interactions,” he said.
“A student who walks out of there will have been exposed to psychologists, engineers and neuroscientists,” Cope said. “Because they have to be sitting right next to people from those different disciplines.”
About 60,000 square feet of the building’s total space will be set aside for offices, labs, auditoriums or other functional purposes. The investment in major equipment — such as magnetic resonance imaging scanners (MRIs) and positron emission tomography scanners (PET) — will be about another $10 million 15 million, much of which Wright State already has elsewhere and can be moved to the NEC.
The building features glass fins — panels protruding outward — to block sunlight to reduce the building’s heat-gain from the summer’s higher-angle sun glare. Labs are notoriously energy-hungry, so energy consumption was a concern when designing the building, said Rob Thompson, WSU architect.
The NEC also features an “active chill beam system,” Thompson said. Traditional large buildings have to move a large volume of air to maintain the environment. Here, temperature control comes via heated or chilled water, essentially a “fancy radiator” in the NEC’s ceilings to maintain comfort, he said.
“The more steps we can take with our facilities and our infrastructure, to be conservative, to minimize energy usage, is only for the best,” Thompson said.
Premier’s Bryan Ludwig said Premier physicians were brought in at the building’s conception. Those physicians will have their own lab space there, he said.
“You need an environment in which these researchers can grow,” he said.
The diseases and conditions these researchers hope to address include stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, brain tumors, Parkinson’s, some spinal diseases, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease” — and more.
“The population is aging,” Bryan Ludwig said. “Dayton is an example of that, just like every place in the country.”
But researchers are exploring answers to problems that affect younger people, as well, such as autism and even diabetes, which can affect brain neurons, Harrington said.
Sherif Elbasiouny, a Wright State neuroengineer and assistant professor, recently won a three-year, $433,000 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency grant to study how amputees with prosthetic limbs can be given new control and sensation with those limbs. A university spokesman called the DARPA award “rare.”
”Neurological diseases, these problems are very complicated,” Elbasiouny said. “It’s not expected that one tool or method will solve the problem.”
Local hospital systems have increasingly focused on neurosciences in recent years.
Last July, leaders of the Wright State-Premier Health Neuroscience Institute and Dayton Children’s Hospital announced a new affiliation in a bid to strengthen local neuro-trauma research.
The alliance meant a nearly $2 million investment into research in the Dayton area, including a new professor/researcher position at Wright State, a position funded by Dayton Children’s.
That researcher will have lab and a staff of five to eight people focused on pediatric neurological issues, Cope said last year.
Kettering Health Network observes that its own Wallace-Kettering Neuroscience Institute has been recognized as a “top 50 hospital in neuroscience and neurosurgery” by U.S. News and Business Weekly magazine. The company said a new neurosurgeon board certified in spine was hired in October of 2014.
Over the past decade, KHN spokespeople said, the company has been able to offer patients a pair of PET tracers for the earlier detection of brain tumors.
One reason for the concentration of area expertise is Wright-Patterson, Ohio’s largest single-site employer, Bucklew said. Six years after the 2005 BRAC, the School of Aerospace Medicine moved from Brooks City-Base in San Antonio, Texas, to the nearly 700,000-square-foot Maj. Gen. Harry G. Armstrong complex at Wright-Patterson. The school boasts what it says is the “largest aeromedical library in the world.”
“That brings in a lot of research dollars, a lot of technology and attracts a lot of scientists and researchers looking for this,” Bucklew said.
Fyffe believes the Air Force will be interested in what happens in the NEC building, though no specific place is set aside in the building for Air Force research.
“It will serve as a magnet as the Air Force, the university, and all our partnering institutions recruit top talent to the area,” he said.
The attention to neuroscience has not gone unnoticed by the Dayton Development Coalition, the Dayton-area arm of JobsOhio, the state’s public-private development entity.
“It’s 100 percent on our radar,” said Jeff Hoagland, the coalition’s president and CEO. “When you look at our strategy for the area, one of our top four growth areas is the bioscience industry.”
Hoagland is confident Dayton in time will make a big impact in human research sciences. He took note of a March 25 Dayton Daily News story that reported commercialization opportunities emerging from the Air Force Research Laboratory, which is headquartered at the base.
Commercial uses for Air Force research have a potential of $100 million to $1 billion in sales in five to seven years, the newspaper reported in that story.
“There are a lot of commercialization opportunities that are really starting to pay off,” Hoagland said.
In the next decade, scientists will develop “disease-altering therapies” against neurological ailments, Harrington said.
“The science is getting to the point where there are things we can actually do for these conditions, which is actually pretty new,” she said.
“I still think the brain is kind of the modern-day unknown,” said Garth Fowler, associate executive director for graduate and post-graduate education and training at the American Psychological Association. “There’s a lot we do know about the brain, but there’s probably more we don’t know.”
“The brain is the computer center of our body,” Fowler added. “Everything is going to have some impact on it, from our diet and our exercise on.”
There’s a growing realization that the nervous system controls some aspects of human physiology that previously weren’t seen as “targets” for medical therapies, the NIH’s Kip Ludwig said. For example, morbidly obese people can benefit from controlling signals from the stomach to the brain, he said. Neuro-pace devices can help people having seizures by administering mild electrical currents, he added.
Even “second-sight” devices for blind people can stimulate the retina to give those people some measure of sight, Kip Ludwig said.
All these devices — built with the assistance of engineers — are predicated on “neuroscience maps of the body,” he said.
“It’s really a perfect storm of opportunity,” he said.