Tom Maniatis’ Dream of a NY Genome Center Becomes a Big Apple Reality

9/19/13Follow @benthefidler

For the past year, the New York Genome Center has existed only as 3,000 square feet of rented space in Manhattan’s Rockefeller University, rather than the sprawling genomics hub molecular biology pioneer Tom Maniatis has long envisioned.

Today, that all changed.

In one of the bigger steps forward for the life sciences ecosystem in New York in recent memory, the NYGC today officially opened its permanent research facility—a 170,000-square-foot space at 101 6th Ave., just north of Canal St. on Manhattan’s Lower West Side. The NYGC has big dreams: it is meant to become a driving force for all of the area’s major research institutions to work together, share ideas, and turn the increasing flood of genomic data into real medical innovations.

Roughly 300 people packed into the building’s lobby and café for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, which included keynote addresses from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, NYGC president and director Robert Darnell, and of course Maniatis, the conceptual founder, and chairman of the NYGC’s scientific and clinical steering committee.

Tom Maniatis

Tom Maniatis

“The [NYGC] came to life based on the common understanding that medical genomics is far too expensive and complex for any one institution to tackle on its own,” Maniatis said. “The [NYGC] will not only provide large-scale genomic sequencing, but it will bring together the entire New York community to tackle the problem of making biological and medical sense of large data sets.”

Indeed, collaboration is the crux of this effort. The NYGC is a massive partnership between 12 of New York’s biggest medical research institutions, among them: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Columbia University, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Cornell University/Weill Cornell Medical College, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Rockefeller University, Mount Sinai Medical Center, and others. It is backed by $140 million in funding from those founding members, philanthropic funds (such as Bloomberg Philanthropies), and local government initiatives (like the New York City Economic Development Corp.).

The idea, in a way, is that the NYGC will be the lynchpin of New York’s life sciences ecosystem—a central place for academic laboratories, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, biotechs, information technology specialists, scientists from different fields, and others, to share information, work together, run sponsored clinical trials, and generate translational research that leads to new innovations. The NYGC will thus not only provide in-house genomic sequencing, analytics, and bioinformatics services, but also take that information and use it to conduct medical studies.

“This is not ‘unusual’—this is completely unheard of,” Darnell says. “Genome centers don’t do clinical medicine. They do genomic science—except the [NYGC]. We’re going to do both.”

Darnell added that the NYGC is creating what will become a “global academic institute of the future,” in that it will bring different entities together to move forward multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional projects.

“We’re going to share clinical information and do these projects as a consortium here in the city,” Darnell says. “The problems are too complex to try to [solve] by ourselves, and we need all of our associates and the power of synergy.”

The NYGC currently has 16 of Illumina’s (NASDAQ: ILMN) HiSeq 2500 DNA sequencers, with the capacity to hold 80 such machines once the space is fully staffed and equipped. Even at existing levels, the NYGC can sequence 1 trillion base pairs of DNA in a single day, Darnell says.

The NYGC is staffed with an in-house team of genomic scientists and informaticists, and is hiring outside faculty members as well. About 50 people, including 30 researchers, currently work there—the plan is for 300 to staff the facility by the end of 2014, and 500 within five years.

The center has space for gene sequencing, bioinformatics, translational research labs, a “CLIA lab” (a facility that can test human specimens), a conference center, and an “Innovation Center” to test and evaluate new technology. Its office areas are open-spaced, and spatially flexible—NYGC put much of the furniture on wheels, for instance, so it can reconfigure workstations and lab settings depending on what projects are taking place.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg

Bloomberg, meanwhile, has made several moves to try to spur the growth of the city’s ability to commercialize its life sciences research. His administration put $5 million in financing towards startup costs to build the NYGC facility, helped established the Alexandria Center for Life Science on Manhattan’s East Side (which currently houses labs for ImClone Systems and Pfizer), and poured cash into the development of facilities at the Brooklyn Army Terminal meant to contain lab space for life sciences startups in the area.

“Our administration’s investment in the [NYGC] is part of our overall strategy of fostering…an innovation economy in New York,” Bloomberg said, before leaving the NYGC with this: “Bob [Darnell] and Tom, let me just say what I always say to all my new employees—don’t screw it up.”

Ben Fidler is Xconomy's Deputy Biotechnology Editor. You can e-mail him at bfidler@xconomy.com Follow @benthefidler

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  • inara

    Used to work for the NYGC. It is all snake oil…… The business administration cares little for quality science or research (BTW, there are not 30 “researchers” working there, lol, unless a “researcher” is a lab. tech. or front-desk secretary), only for “fast and cheap”. The sequencing managers are of questionable quality, and the IT “vision” belongs in a fortune cookie (e.g., “you will promise great things, and deliver on none”). The founding members are certainly not sacrificing much by contributing to the endeavor: if it works, great, we get cheap sequencing; if not, we still have our in-house stuff and now we know what not to do….