CHAPEL HILL — Health science research at UNC-Chapel Hill will take a big leap forward Thursday with the dedication of a massive new building designed around an array of giant, cutting-edge imaging equipment and seemingly acres of lab space.
The nine-story, 340,000-square-foot Marsico Hall, located within walking distance of UNC Hospitals, is the third-largest building on campus, and its scale is extraordinary by research standards.
Among U.S. academic medical centers, the buildings array of imaging equipment is rivaled only by that at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, according to UNC. The imaging equipment takes up three floors, including at least one room that could swallow a small house. The other six floors are given over mainly to lab space, where one lab room is nearly half the size of a football field and features 25 rows of research stations.
Marsico Hall will bring the now-scattered research imaging program together in one place and allow it to grow. It also will create new synergy between the medical and pharmacy schools and pull together pulmonary research groups under one roof, said Terry Magnuson, the School of Medicines vice dean for research.
The new building will allow the expansion of research programs at the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, to which it is connected via aerial walkway, and at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy. It also will become home of the Marsico Lung Institute and labs for scientist and entrepreneur Joe DeSimone, who among other things is working on methods of using nanotechnology to create new kinds of medicine.
The building, which cost $245 million and was paid for almost entirely with state funding, is perhaps the final major product of an extraordinary period of financial support for medical research and cancer treatment from the North Carolina legislature, which helped push the university higher up the rankings of top research institutions.
The idea sprang from brainstorming among university officials and legislative leaders after approval of funding for a new cancer hospital at UNC. The cancer hospital money was pushed through by then-Senate leader Marc Basnight, a Manteo Democrat who also spearheaded a $50 million annual state contribution to cancer research at UNC, called the University Cancer Research Fund.
We were talking with the legislature about the cancer hospital and the University Cancer Research Fund, and the question was, was there anything else that we could do on campus that would really put UNC into national leadership, said Dr. H. Shelton Earp, then the cancer centers director and now head of cancer care for UNC. And the thought was that there was an area we had not advanced as much in, but that was really important, and that was imaging research.
That, Earp said, later evolved to include the notion of a place where applied sciences and basic sciences could be melded to attack human disease in new ways.
State leaders, he said, were keen to boost the universitys research capabilities.
And of course thats happened dramatically, where we have moved from 12th to 7th in NIH (National Institutes of Health) funding in the last three to four years, Earp said. And this building will only help that.
The imaging equipment includes two sophisticated MRIs and something called a cyclotron, which can produce short-lived radioactive isotopes that can be used to better see whats going on inside the bodies of live human or animal subjects. That equipment, on the buildings first three floors, will allow researchers to track changes in a disease without harming the subjects, Earp said.
The next three floors, which include the pharmacy schools and DeSimones spaces, are places where molecules can be created to treat or track disease. The top three floors are centered around basic science, and include the cancer centers labs, labs for immunology, which is becoming ever more important in cancer therapy, and the lung institute.
The building is named for Thomas F. Marsico, chairman and chief executive officer of Marsico Capital Management, a Denver-based investment fund. Marsico, known in the financial world for his skill at picking stocks, has kept a low profile at UNC-Chapel Hill, despite being one of the universitys biggest donors in recent years.
Much of Marsicos giving had been anonymous, but he said in an interview Tuesday with some reluctance that the total now amounts to nearly $40 million.
Marsico said that he and his wife, Cydney, decided to give the money after he developed relationships with university officials and researchers such as Dr. Richard Boucher, director of UNCs Cystic Fibrosis/Pulmonary Research and Treatment Center and co-director of the universitys gene therapy center.
The contributions have mainly targeted efforts to fight cystic fibrosis and other lung-related diseases, and in particular he has funded the creation of a high-powered research team headed by Boucher.
Marsico, who is the father of two UNC alumni, said that he had several bouts of pneumonia as a child and still suffers from occasional lung infections. Also, he said, he and his wife are close friends with a couple who have a child with cystic fibrosis.
Marsico said he didnt consider the money for UNC a gift, but rather an investment in good researchers and good programs, and that he was particularly happy that the lung institute was also a clinic.
That means that there are real clinicians working with researchers on relevant problems, so youre trying to find a better way to treat existing maladies and youre also working on rare diseases, he said. So its a place where the public can come to be treated at the best level with the best research, and I think thats special.