In a good space

Communal lab facility allows innovative team approach to research

WCHRI lab spaceIt was the summer of 2011. Construction workers were still putting the finishing touches on the labs, when the new occupants began moving in with their packing boxes. They were excited about the prospect of moving into the gleaming, state-of-the-art Women and Children’s Health Research Institute lab facilities on the third floor of the Katz building.
Five years later, their enthusiasm is unabated.
“It is very rare for investigators like us to be able to work so closely with others who share common interests and goals,” notes physiologist Dr. Gregory Funk. “I think it’s fair to say that the group is so much greater than the sum of its ‘individual investigator’ parts. It’s an incredible environment for trainees who are surrounded by people at all levels of training with a wide range of expertise and perspectives.”
Funk is one of six researchers whose primary focus is neuromuscular control of perinatal and pediatric breathing. He, along with about 20 students, post-doctoral fellows, and research technicians and associates, is housed in the north side of the WCHRI lab in the Katz Group Centre for Pharmacy and Health Research. The south side is occupied by WCHRI researchers focused on pediatric cancer and perinatal research. The 22,600-square-foot lab represents a $5 million investment by the University of Alberta to WCHRI.
Senior researcher and physiologist Dr. John Greer, who is described as the driving force that brought this collaborative team together, lists the advantages of working in close proximity with his peers.
“It gives us communal access to millions of dollars’ worth of equipment, which we would not have been able to acquire on our own,” he says. “It’s tremendously helpful in the development and critical appraisal of projects and ideas. Collectively we have a wide range of high-level expertise that we can tap and share.” Having a clinician on board, such as Dr. Joanna MacLean, who treats children with sleep apnea at the Stollery Children’s Hospital, provides an important reality check: “Is this research clinically relevant?” Answering that question helps to determine the applicability of research to patient care.
The collaborative atmosphere has proven to be very useful to Greer in his work, including his research into ampakine therapy in treating breathing problems in young children for which he is perhaps best known. Ampakine, a stimulant, counters the effects of opiate painkillers which can suppress breathing. Thanks to his groundbreaking studies, the U of A was able to patent the drug, which is being tested in adult clinical trials in the U.S. Greer is now studying the drug to see if it can also be safely administered to premature babies who often suffer from sleep apnea, and if it can be combined with pain killing opiates in babies after surgery to prevent breathing disruptions.
Working in a communal lab space has proved to be an advantage for Greer and his colleagues in an increasingly competitive funding environment that emphasizes collaborative research. “Having this kind of access to ideas, expertise, staff and equipment creates the enriched environment and capacity that granting agencies like to see,” says Greer.