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Cores Aim to Serve While Keeping in the Black

Hopkins core facilities can make transgenic mice, conduct microarray assays and perform other specialized tasks. But balancing its books can be a core’s biggest challenge.

May 2009--As manager of the Transgenic Core Laboratory at the East Baltimore campus, Chip Hawkins does whatever it takes to support his clients’ research. So when neuroscientist Angelika Doetzlhofer moved her lab from UCLA to Hopkins last year, Hawkins flew to Los Angeles, harvested sperm from 12 transgenic mouse lines, and shipped frozen vials of the sperm back to Hopkins.

The service was invaluable to Doetzlhofer, who had spent years establishing the genetically precious mouse lines for her research on inner ear development.

But such service does not come cheaply. Several directors of the eight fee-for-service core facilities based at IBBS say they constantly struggle to balance costs and revenue. “It’s a huge challenge to remain in the black while maintaining a high-end facility that’s accessible to a broad number of users,” says IBBS Director Stephen Desiderio.

That’s not the way administrators envisioned core operations. When IBBS was formed, it subsumed several existing core laboratories from basic science departments. Later, $12 million from the Instititute for Cell Engineering was applied to help establish several new cores. The cores are intended to provide resource-intensive services that faculty might not have the time or manpower to perform in their own labs. Since the cores are on campus, researchers only have to walk down the hall or across the street to seek their services. In addition, core directors and staff serve as educators who can teach clients how to use instruments and analyze results. “The quality of experiments the core performs is very high,” says Yanshu Wang, a research specialist who has used the Microarray Core extensively. Just as important, she says, are the training sessions she’s taken to learn to analyze the enormous amount of data generated in a microarray. “If you have a question, they’re always happy to help.”

Administrators planned for each core to charge fees to clients, who would include Hopkins faculty and, in some cases, researchers from other institutions. They hoped that after about three years, those fees plus grants and contracts would cover operating costs, says Chi Dang, vice dean for research. Cores are expected neither to lose money nor make a profit.

In practice, however, that model hasn’t always fit. Cores are simply very expensive, say their directors. Funds must pay for highly trained personnel, equipment, supplies and various other costs, such as annual service contracts for instruments, which can consume a large fraction of a core’s entire budget. And as each new wave of innovation brings technology that can do the job faster or better, cores must keep pace or lose business, replacing obsolete instruments with the latest best thing.

Jef Boeke, director of the Microarray Core, says next-generation sequencing technologies are starting to replace the microarray. “My guess is that 10 years from now, the microarray will be a dinosaur,” says Boeke. That transformation, he says, will require an enormous investment in new technology. But a core that is losing money is unable to invest in new technology.

At the same time, cores have limits on how much they can raise their fees because they must keep their rates in line with those charged by other facilities offering similar services. Cores that have run into deficit problems have requested funding from school administrators to cover the cost of specific items, such as a service contract. “We’ve given small stimulus packages to fulfill ad hoc requests,” says Dang.

Some core directors say trying to keep a core solvent can hinder science. “If the faculty director of a core is burdened with the responsibility of running a break-even service business and does not do a good job of it or finds it impossible, that faculty member will be very distracted from doing his or her own science,” says Boeke.

Could there be a better way?

One possibility is for cores to seek more grants and contracts, as several cores have already done. One facility that has been especially successful in that area is ChemCORE. Established in 2003 with $2.4 million in seed money, ChemCORE is designed to screen large numbers of compounds rapidly to identify those that may lead to new drugs or molecular research probes. The core’s robotic tools can screen 20,000 compounds a day.

“Until about one and a half years ago, I’d say we were hardly breaking even,” says director Min Li. That changed last fall when Li and faculty colleagues from eight basic science and clinical departments received an NIH Roadmap grant to establish an Ion Channel Center. The award designates Hopkins, and specifically ChemCORE, as a national resource for screening compounds that may interact with ion channels. For the six-year project, Li’s team has received $18 million in Roadmap funds, plus about $3 million in corporate sponsorships.

ChemCORE has also begun a collaboration with Corning Inc. The company has given the lab a beta version of a new high-throughput instrument for use in its screening assays, along with funding to test out the new tool.

His experience in operating a core, says Li, has taught him to expand the conventional business model. “Don’t just rely on fee-for-service. Look for other opportunities by bringing in cutting-edge technologies and being competitive nationally.”

The ideal solution, however, say several core directors, would be for Hopkins to provide each core with an operational budget, as some other research institutions do.

“The long-term solution, in my opinion, is a large core function endowment,” says Dang. Such a fund would not only provide a base of operations, it would act as a magnet for further grant support.

The cores have already proven that principle, say several directors; they point out that the initial $12 million institutional investment has reaped at least $140 million in grant support.

But money is not the only issue, says Boeke. Having a campus-based core means that a researcher has access to the wisdom of a faculty director who is invested in the quality of the outcome. “When a core is run by an active faculty member with independent research programs, it’s fundamentally different from a core run on the outside, where it’s just service.”

--Melissa Hendricks

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