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New Clinical Research Unit to Open at RTP Campus

By Eddy Ball (with Robin Mackar)
November 2006

architect rendering
The architect's rendering of the new facility. (Drawing courtesy of Williams-Scotsman)

William Martin
Director of Translational Research William Martin, M.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Translational research at NIEHS took a major leap forward with the announcement in October of a new Clinical Research Unit (CRU) on the main campus. Construction is expected to begin early in 2007 on land that is now part of Lot F. The 11,500 square foot facility will be connected to Module F by a breezeway, and research activities there should begin in the summer. The NIEHS unit will be first of its kind at NIEHS, and it will be instrumental in helping NIEHS accomplish the goals of its Strategic Plan.

According to NIEHS Director of Translational Research William Martin, M.D., the CRU will encourage NIEHS scientists and grantees to develop protocols that will promote interdisciplinary research at various levels. "I think it's very important that the CRU become a metaphor for the changes that are happening within the institute in terms of the Strategic Plan. There's nothing quite like a building to say that we are going in a new direction."

NIEHS envisions the CRU as central in accomplishing three important goals. A clinical research program should enhance the impact of intramural research on understanding human health and disease in a "bi-directional" feedback process between basic science research and clinical research. It also will offer a model for applying basic science to problems in clinical environmental health. Finally, it will serve as a role model for extramural scientists, helping them to develop similar programs at NIEHS-supported research centers nationwide.

Initially, clinical staff at the facility will focus on environmental lung diseases such as asthma, for which there is abundant evidence of the role of exposure to air-borne materials. NIEHS researchers at the CRU will see outpatient research subjects only; the facility will not accommodate inpatient studies. The facility will offer routine subject evaluation, fluoroscopy, x-ray imaging, sample collection and processing, as well as specialized diagnostic capabilities such as pulmonary function testing, inhalation exposure, bronchoscopy and bronchial sampling.

In addition to meeting the institute's immediate needs for clinical research, the facility will presage the construction of a larger clinical facility with inpatient capabilities, advanced imaging and other features. As the unit progresses, the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council will advise and monitor clinical research efforts and help address questions about ways the CRU could expand beyond the institute's core competencies in pulmonary exposures and diseases. "Success in developing the latter facility, planned for some time around 2012, remains tied to our success at attracting a robust multi-disciplinary clinical scientific presence to the NIEHS campus," said Dr. Martin.

Along with the physician-scientists already on staff at NIEHS, two more have recently been recruited to staff the new facility. Dr. William Martin, himself a physician and well-known researcher in pulmonary diseases, joined the NIEHS in March 2006. Dr. Michael Fessler, also a physician-scientist who specializes in pulmonary and critical care medicine, recently joined NIEHS to serve as both a Clinical Investigator and head of the new Host Defense Group in the Laboratory of Respiratory Biology. As an example of how the basic and clinical arenas will merge to improve patient outcomes, Dr. Fessler says he will use a disease-oriented translational approach to develop clinical applications out of his group's work on the pulmonary and immune systems. A staff clinician is also being recruited to oversee day-to-day operations and management of the facility.



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