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More than bricks and mortar
Proposed facilities unite disciplines to solve nation's health problems

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs

Renewing the Foundations of Excellence

Two new health science research facilities to enhance the pace at which scientists are learning about the body's molecular machinery and genetic blueprint have moved into the development stages as part of the university's $500-million Health Sciences Initiative.

On the drawing boards are two new buildings on the east and west sides of the campus: a molecular engineering complex which would replace Stanley Hall, and a center for biomedical and health sciences, which would take the place of Warren Hall. Together these new complexes will unite an interdisciplinary array of research in the biological sciences, engineering, physics, chemistry, computer sciences, environmental science and public health to advance the science of human health.

The fusion of biology, engineering, the physical and environmental sciences and public health is an essential part of an ambitious reorganization to keep Berkeley at the forefront of basic research and the development of new techniques that will ultimately improve both the length and quality of human life. This fusion will open new doors in the understanding of disease and processes to detect and treat disease.

"The two new buildings will encourage this synergy by providing interdisciplinary laboratories under the same roof, so that scientists can collaborate with colleagues and stay on top of discoveries in other fields," said William Webster, vice provost of Academic Planning and Facilities. "The molecular engineering complex will bring together biologists, physicists, chemists and bioengineers in a unique collaborative setting. These scientists will have state-of-the-art laboratories for the study of the body's molecular machinery and a place to develop new tools to understand, detect, repair or replace the results of disease or accident. These developments will dramatically change the way medicine is delivered in the coming decades."

Health science research has changed dramatically in the last several years, noted Edward Penhoet, dean of the School of Public Health. "Scientists in a broad range of disciplines are bringing their expertise to the health care table to help solve the basic blueprint of life," he said. "Breakthroughs in everything from bioinformatics - the science of mining databases like the Human Genome Project - to gene profiling will benefit once they are brought under one programmatic roof."

The new building that will house the center for biomedical and health sciences will do just that.

"The most exciting work in health care today is coming from research in biomedicine and fields at the boundary of biology and molecular science," Webster said. "We have decoded the human genome and are about to embark on the next step, the cataloging and analysis of every protein in the human body. New interdisciplinary studies will solve riddles in the treatment and cure of cancer, help researchers design drugs to stymie genetic and infectious diseases, prevent AIDS or slow the onset of dementia and Alzheimer's disease."

Examples of the rich tapestry of interdisciplinary studies already emerging to address hundreds of diseases include:

  • New strategies in the fight against AIDS, which combine the tools of molecular biology, immunology, infectious disease and epidemiology to determine the ways in which viruses and parasites enter human cells.
  • Bioinformatics, combining computer sciences with bioengineering, will permit efficient sequencing of human proteins. This will be an essential building block to the development of health care based on an individual's genetic makeup, what will become truly personalized health care.
  • The union of chemistry, physics and biology to explore how molecules, the beads of heredity, interact in the body, and how these interactions regulate the functioning and malfunctioning of cells. State-of-the-art imaging techniques, such as electron crystallography, which is capable of revealing the proteins inside a cell, will aid drug designers in efforts to find synthetic substitutes.
  • Bioengineering through development of sophisticated medical imaging techniques and the manufacture of artificial tissue and joints and bio-MEMs (micro-electro-mechanical systems) devices for microsurgery and drug administration will provide new tools for the health care profession that will enable a vast improvement in the detection and treatment of disease.
  • The principles of chemistry, especially synthesis, are being combined with the machinery of living cells to generate new properties and functions not found in nature or in the laboratory. Such methods can produce novel materials, sensors for chemical and biological materials and microorganisms designed for specific functions.

Renewing the Foundations of Excellence home

Health Sciences Initiative news

Source: Berkeleyan Special Issue, Fall 2000