By April Wilkerson Writer, OU College of Medicine,
For the investigator of a promising research project, time, money and skill are necessary companions for the science itself.
Allison Gillaspy, Ph.D., is director of
the Laboratory for Molecular Biology and
Cytometry Research, better known as the
The core labs at The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center fill such a role for researchers across campus. More formally known as the Laboratory for Molecular Biology and Cytometry Research, the core labs have risen to a new level of quality and accessibility in the last several years. What used to exist as three separate laboratories have merged under one umbrella, a move designed to better facilitate research through each of the areas. The labs also are housed under the same roof at the Biomedical Research Center, filling about 4,000 square feet, including a striking glass area on the first floor that shows off the technology.
Allison Gillaspy, Ph.D., director of the core labs, said such facilities are crucial to furthering research at an academic medical center. Individual researchers have resources in their own labs, but a core facility can boost their efforts in several ways.
“The majority of the technology we have is not something people will have in their individual labs because of the cost and expertise needed to run it,” Gillaspy said. “It may be that your whole project doesn’t revolve around sequencing or mass spectrometry, so to have your own half a million dollar instrument would not be feasible or necessary. You may need one or two samples run, so it’s a better investment to send them to us and let us get the results for you.”
The core labs still encompass the same three areas: DNA sequencing and Genomics, Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics, and Flow Cytometry and Imaging. But operating as one entity means Gillaspy and her her staff can better direct researchers to the resources they need, rather than the researcher having to do the leg work himself. It also means Gillaspy can provide more support and direction on a project.
“It’s not just turning the crank and sending data back to people,” she said. “I look at as much data as humanly possible so that we’re giving people back a level of product that I can be proud of. We also want to help educate people, not just process samples. We have young faculty, residents and graduate students who are expected to do research. In most cases, they don’t have labs or lab technicians. We can help them get started on a project and figure out what we can do for them. We don’t spoon-feed everything to them, but we help put things into perspective for their particular experiment. I want them to understand it because they’re going to have to talk about it someday. They’re going to have to write a paper or give a seminar or discuss it with their committee members.”
New technology has added to the core labs’ capabilities and relevance. In addition to the existing next-generation DNA sequencer -- the SOLiD from Applied Biosystems -- the facility recently added another because of demand for its services. It is the Illumina, a smaller-platform, next-generation sequencer. It will be especially useful for research into cancer and other diseases requiring a comparison of gene expression on a genomic level.
In the Flow Cytometry and Imaging lab, the Stratadigm flow cytometer has been added in the past year. Gillaspy said. With it, lab staff can look at an increased number of fluorescent tags – 12, up from 6 – while viewing cell populations. The Stratadigm features a 96-well format, so the sample size can be smaller but many more can be screened at one time.
Other additions, such as a microscope environment chamber, give researchers another level of resources.
“Now the investigators can do experiments where they control the CO2 and temperature,” Gillaspy said. “It’s a controlled environment, so they may be looking at an infection cycle or a cell cycle that is a timed and temperature growth event.”
Another element of the core labs’ distinction is that it applies a business mindset to an academic setting. That model ensures everyone is treated equally and receives results in a timely manner.
“We care about the science, of course, and we care about everybody’s projects, but we have set turnaround times, and we have set charges,” Gillaspy said. “Everybody is charged the same thing, and you’re going to get your results quickly. We have to keep our costs low because, just like any business, they could go elsewhere. So whether the incentive is the quick turnaround time, or the cost, or that we’re here primarily to serve our researchers, we want people to use us.”
Recruiting new faculty and researchers is easier when the university can point to the core labs. The labs’ business approach also is increasingly important: Gillaspy said the National Institutes of Health advocates for such facilities to help as many people as possible.
The staff at the core labs contributes many years of knowledge and skill on equipment and research approaches. Gillaspy said they also experience the best of both worlds: the experiments and the technology, along with the customer service required to interact with a diversity of users across campus.
“It’s a fun job, and different than what most people are used to,” she said. “It’s academic and industry combined. I enjoy the lab work, but I also like to help as many people as we possibly can.”