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UNC Charlotte's place in the biotech push

The Bioinformatics building under construction on the campus of UNC Charlotte align=left
The Bioinformatics building under construction on the campus of UNC Charlotte align=left

You hear a lot about biotechnology these days with the North Carolina Research Campus taking shape in Kannapolis and visions of hundreds of high-paying jobs. UNC Charlotte is also part of the area's biotech push. The university is nearing completion of a $35 million building dedicated to molecular biology and the huge amounts of data that go along with that research. Take a DNA strand that contains all the billions of instructions a bacterium, soybean or animal needs to grow - or even a fraction of that strand. All that information needs to be stored somewhere so that it can be studied and that's not easy. "The days of being able to do a biological experiment and write down the results in a notebook are gone because the amounts of data we're generating far exceed the capacity of any spreadsheet and even the file systems on the computer," says Lawrence Mays, the head of UNC Charlotte's department of Bioinformatics and Genomics. He's showing off the 97,000 square foot building that in a few months will house 20 labs and several super-servers that can process a flood of information. Workers are putting the finishing touches on the building. "This is a lab for fabricating microarrays. Microarrays are a relatively new technology that provide a way of doing an analysis of lots and lots of things very quickly with a small sample. I could show you a chip that has an active area about the size of a postage stamp that is effectively like a rack of 2 million test tubes," explains Mays. Say you want to determine what strain of a virus someone has, let's just say swine flu. In this lab, Mays says scientists will have the tools to design a chip that contains nearly every way the virus could mutate. Biocytics, a company in Huntersville, is working with UNC Charlotte to use microarrays to look at the genetic make up of cells that break-off from malignant tumors. The hope is that the research will help refine what chemo cancer patients should take. Ken Paulus helps to forge these relationships between companies and UNC Charlotte's researchers. "Even though we're a large school, we do not have the same type of resources that our sister school UNC Chapel Hill which spends hundreds of million dollars on research expenditures. Our research expenditure is at $40 million a year. One of the things that makes UNC Charlotte unique, however, is the fact we've positioned what dollars we do get in very specific areas, in niches we can be successful in," explains Paulus. Paulus says part of that success means training students for specific jobs that take a lot of expertise. Over the past decade, the university has created several research areas such as precision engineering and optical imaging. The Bioinformatics department began just last October. "People will probably notice over the past 20 years the rise in biotechnology activity. If you look at that on a chart, you'd see a correlating line that boosts biotechnology research along with computing power. There's no secret you need to have computers and the ability to interpret data as part of your research," says Paulus. For many years, UNC Charlotte has worked with banks on developing software that interprets large amounts of data. Paulus says that helped to lay the groundwork for what the school is now doing in bioinformatics. UNC Charlotte says its decision to pursue Bioinformatics came before the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis was proposed in 2005. But Paulus says the center is helping to take the university's research to a whole other level. The university already has servers located in Kannapolis that are crunching numbers for research. And UNC Charlotte wants to place PhD and masters candidates at the campus. They would work at start-up companies that don't have the resources to find and hire highly-skilled people. UNC Charlotte will open its Bioinformatics building in August.