January 10, 2011

Johns Hopkins Medicine cores have new online hub

New tool designed to help researchers navigate and identify Johns Hopkins core services

Mikhail Pletnikov, director of the Behavioral Neurobiology and Neuroimmunology Lab at the School of Medicine, in the Animal Behavior Core facility that opened this month in the Broadway Research Building. Photo: Will Kirk/Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

The cores have a hub. Johns Hopkins Medicine’s ever-evolving assortment of “core” research facilities and services—one of the most comprehensive and advanced core sets in the country—can now be accessed through a single online portal.

The new Web tool, dubbed the Hopkins Core Conduit, is designed to help researchers navigate and identify Johns Hopkins core services that enable cutting-edge research in the areas of basic science, genetics, medicine and other fields, allowing investigators to advance projects to provide better medical treatments for a variety of health concerns.

While predominantly used by the School of Medicine, the cores are available to researchers in other divisions and at other institutions.

Barbara Daily, assistant director of the Office of Faculty Research Resources at the School of Medicine, said that the website, while modest in its purpose, is a huge step forward for the advancement of core services.

“There is now an ultimate source that provides information on all core resources here at Johns Hopkins,” Daily said. “The Hopkins Core Conduit makes easily accessible to investigators resources that were once invisible. Researchers might only have been aware of what services were available in their department. Now all the resources are together in one set that cuts across departments.”

Suzanne Boeke, director of the Office of Faculty Research Resources, agrees. “The kind of services and information provided by this office, such as the Hopkins Core Conduit, will  add to a repertoire of data-driven enhancement of research infrastructure in the School of Medicine over the next several years,” she said.

Johns Hopkins’ 55 cores provide such services as DNA sequencing, cell cultures, metabolic testing, brain imaging and the use of animals for research, such as the work done at the Finz Center, the school’s zebrafish facility. Zebrafish, valued for their quick-growing and see-through embryos that can be genetically

manipulated, are used by scientists to identify genes that underlie a broad range of human diseases, including musculoskeletal, cardiovascular and cancer.

There’s also a Core Store that provides one-stop shopping for more than 120,000 products from 16 of the leading life science companies.

The National Center for Research Resources, or NCRR, defines a core facility as a centralized, shared resource that provides biomedical and behavioral investigators with access to instruments, technologies and services, as well as expert consultation. Core facility scientists provide researchers with expertise in a particular scientific or technological area.

The JHU cores, predominantly funded by the NCRR and the National Institutes of Health, allow JHU researchers to do in house what would be more costly and time-consuming if farmed out.

Chi Dang, vice dean for research at the School of Medicine, said that the cores are vital to the research mission of the school.

“The cores are extremely useful to us to do our science,” Dang said. “No single lab could afford the instrumentation many of these cores offer. One single piece of equipment might cost in the area of $1 million. The cores allow us, by economy of scale, to obtain the technologies needed to push our science ever forward.”

Several cores are unique to Johns Hopkins, Dang said, including the Protein Microarray Core, run by Heng Zhu, an associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences. Zhu’s core has used its more than 12,000 human proteins in a wide range of applications, including serum profiling, analysis of protein-drug interactions and identification of protein kinase targets.

Another unique core is the High Throughput Screening Center for Neurogenetics, founded by Min Li, a professor of neuroscience. Li oversees an institutional core facility, funded by a $15 million NIH grant, that uses robotic equipment to perform high throughput screens with small molecules such as drugs and chemicals.

“It’s really fascinating work,” Dang said. “It’s a cross between the academic realm and what drug companies are doing.”

Historically, cores emerge from individual investigators who are in need of a specific service that’s not available and decide to start their own. Dang said that a decade ago, Johns Hopkins began to proactively foster core creation through an Emerging Technology Task Force.

“We asked faculty if they were to have the means, what cores should we be building? We wanted to launch a grassroots effort and prioritize which cores to help fund first, launching some of these cores ourselves, but more commonly applying for grants.”

Dang said that Johns Hopkins’ current diverse core menagerie serves as a powerful recruitment tool.

“It’s a big draw for new faculty. When they arrive here, they go, ‘Wow, you have all these cores,’ ” he said. “It’s like a toy store for them. It’s a great attraction, and they compare us favorably to what other institutions offer.”

The new Animal Behavior Core, which opened this month, was started by Mikhail Pletnikov, director of the Behavioral Neurobiology and Neuroimmunology Lab at the School of Medicine. Pletnikov’s core offers a variety of equipment to test, rate and evaluate mouse and rat behavior for aspects of human diseases. The center will provide equipment, design services, consultations and result interpretation.

Pletnikov, an expert in animal behavior analysis, has provided corelike services for a number of years and wanted to officially establish a core service center and reach a broader audience.

“Now we hope to offer our services to even more people,” he said.

He said that the Brain Science Institute was “indispensable” in getting the core off the ground.

Alan Scott, director of the Genetic Resources Core Facility, predicts that the Hopkins Core Conduit will become a well-worn path for researchers here.

“Johns Hopkins is so large and diverse that it is hard for any one person to have a grasp of what’s available here. It is particularly hard for new faculty and postdocs,” Scott said. “[The Genetic Resources Core Facility] has been in operation since 1989, and I still find people who don’t know what we do despite our advertising, symposia and website. Promoting the various cores through a single portal should make all of us trying to do research much more productive.”

Scott said that cores are essential to keep faculty productive because they provide access to expertise and technology that individual labs either don’t need all the time or simply can’t afford.

“Altogether, we’ve estimated that the GRCF has saved the university tens of millions of dollars since its inception, and we’ve assisted hundreds of principal investigators and students, many of whom have then been able to be more competitive for grants.”

To access the Hopkins Core Conduit, go to www.hopkinsmedicine.org/Research/core_facilities/index.html.