Wealthy New Lab Aims To
Capture Dreams, Literally

By Maggie Fox
Reuters Health and Science Correspondent
ASHBURN, Virginia (Reuters) - Gerald Rubin is looking for someone who can take a picture of a thought.
To do it, he and colleagues are harnessing the powerful force of cold, hard cash -- Howard Hughes' cash, to be exact.
They are building a new $400 million laboratory in the green countryside outside Washington, D.C. and hope to attract the brightest and most unconventional minds in science to find a way to look into a person's brain and see what it is doing.
And they want to take their time doing it. "In a 100-year timeframe we want to understand human consciousness," said Rubin.
Rubin and colleagues at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute -- one of the world's richest philanthropies with an endowment worth $11.3 billion -- are approaching this ticklish problem backwards. They have bought a 280-acre farm in Ashburn, Virginia, and are building a new kind of research campus.
Only now, halfway through its construction, are they settling on what kind of research they want to do and looking for the people to do it.
"We are (like) a biotechnology company whose product is new knowledge and which has infinitely patient investors," Rubin told reporters on a recent tour, comparing the foundation to a corporation.
How did they settle on imaging thought?
"We wanted to pick an important biomedical problem but we wanted to pick a problem that wasn't easily addressed at academic campuses."
One area that might meet these criteria was the question of how brain cells store and process information.
Rubin and the other founders of Janelia Farm -- HHMI President Thomas Cech and chief scientific officer David Clayton -- polled scientists on what they thought the biggest problem in future biomedical research would be.
"They all say imaging," Rubin said. As with all "basic" scientific research, the researchers do not know what they might discover or its potential applications.
While biologists have a rough idea of what goes on in a cell, current scans all record the action indirectly, by measuring glucose uptake, for instance.
What if you could take a picture of a brain cell at the very moment it recorded a thought?
Trying to do this will require the expertise of neurobiologists, physicists, molecular biologists, chemists, geneticists, instrument designers and computer scientists.
Those who are interested will hear a beguiling call: "We'll give you money, lots of money, and we won't ask too many questions," Rubin said.
Hughes, who founded the Hughes Aircraft Company and helped turn TWA in a major airline, founded HHMI in 1953. Hughes Aircraft went to the Institute after his death in 1976.
Rubin said the HHMI board of trustees want to act like venture capitalists.
"Venture capitalists will assume that many projects won't pay off but that some will pay big," Rubin said.
Janelia Farm will operate on the same assumption.
"If someone tells me they are doing something with a 90 percent chance of success, I'll tell them they are not being creative enough -- to go find something more adventuresome," Rubin said.
To some degree this has been the philosophy of the HHMI, a virtual institute that funds scientists already working at universities across the country.
Janelia Farm will take the anti-academic approach even further. Rubin said the plan is to do away with tenure, and publish-or-perish mentalities that he says can block collaboration and long-term thinking.
The foundation's deep pockets allow considerable flexibility. "In a typical university, you have to convince a third party of what you want to do," Rubin said. "We are not going to take a penny of money from anybody else."
About 10 percent, or 300, of HHMI's 3,000 scientists will eventually work at Janelia Farm, Rubin said.
The HHMI team hired New York architect Rafael Vinoly to design a campus on the site, chosen because it was close to Dulles International Airport and HHMI's headquarters in nearby Chevy Chase, Maryland.
The new center, 40 minutes by car from Washington, is due to be finished in March 2006.
The laboratories were designed with nothing specific in mind. "We looked and looked at every instrument scientists used and asked, 'What's the biggest one' and then we made the rooms big enough to hold it," Rubin said.
The campus includes a 96-room hotel and apartment complex. The aim is to encourage sabbaticals, short-term collaborations and casual visits.
Built like a terrace into a hillside that gently slopes to the Potomac River, the building has wide glass corridors to let in plenty of natural light and a view across a flood plain where no one else can ever build anything.
But will scientists working with no deadline and little oversight be tempted to spend their days gazing across the green landscape instead of striving for genius?
"That's a risk we are willing to take," Rubin said.



This Site Served by TheHostPros