In 2011, MD Anderson received a $150 million gift — the largest in its history — from the Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation for the construction of the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Building for Personalized Cancer Care.
The 12-floor, 615,000-square-foot facility is the home of the Sheikh Ahmed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Center for Pancreatic Cancer Research, which puts investigators with shared research vision into the same space to foster collaboration and encourage a cross-pollination of ideas.
“Our only goal is to do meaningful translational research in one disease — pancreatic cancer,” says Anirban Maitra, M.B.B.S., professor of Pathology and director of the center.
But traditional labs, which are built with walls, can be a hindrance to multidisciplinary problematic research. Literal walls become figurative walls that stifle collaboration, communication and creativity.
“No one lab can do everything or house the expertise required for this type of research,” Maitra explains. “In the pancreas center, because we have investigators with such diverse interests, we’re able to take on these multidisciplinary research initiatives where, for example, there’s a team that includes experts in imaging, metabolism and mouse models. Bringing these experts together in one space would not be possible in many research facilities.”
This is resulting in the creation of meaningful science and energizing researchers, which perpetuates the process. In the past two years, the footprint of the center has made a significant impact in terms of the big ideas and big grants being generated.
One such big idea is the development of a liquid biopsy that could be used to determine prognosis, guide targeted therapy and monitor treatment of pancreatic cancer.
Maitra’s research team found that pancreatic cancer tumors shed their complete DNA and RNA — wrapped inside protective lipid particles — into the bloodstream, essentially spilling their molecular secrets. This makes the tumors ripe for analysis with a noninvasive blood test.
“I’ve seen the number of collaborations grow exponentially,” says Bettina Marble, director of Research Planning and Development for the center. “The excitement has grown and everyone is more engaged. There’s more buzz and unity.”
The open-concept labs of the Sheikh Ahmed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Center for Pancreatic Cancer Research place investigators from different specialties in the same space to promote collaboration, communication and creativity. The center’s director, Anirban Maitra, and its director of Research Planning and Development, Bettina Marble, say the layout of the facility is translating into excitement among MD Anderson scientists.