Project Breakthrough: Long Island Grown

Long Island may lie in the shadow of taller, faster, mightier Manhattan, but when it comes to scientific innovation and medical modernity, this island is no blushing wallflower. Home to hundreds of hospitals and laboratories—several of which hold world-premiere status in technological advancement and preeminence of staff—Long Island is recognized by our government (and the world) as a leader in the exploration of the physical and life sciences. While all of our hospitals and laboratories deserve credit for their contributions to human knowledge, a few stand out as renowned pioneers, doggedly challenging the frontiers of science, medicine and green energy.

Brookhaven National Laboratory
You may have heard the news by now that Brookhaven National Lab (BNL) was awarded a sizable chunk of that coveted federal stimulus package—$184.3 million, to be exact. One of ten national laboratories that are largely supported by funding from the Office of Science of the US Department of Energy (DOE), BNL has maintained a prestigious career in the national spotlight by constructing cutting-edge research facilities, such as the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, the NASA Space Radiation Lab, the Center for Functional Nanomaterials and the National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS). About $150 million of the stimulus funding will help them construct yet another such facility—the National Synchrotron Light Source II. And just what in the world will that thing do? Let there be light!
BNL claims that the NSLS II will be capable of producing beams of x-rays, ultraviolet light and infrared light of unparalleled brightness—allowing scientists to see tiny things. Really tiny things. Things on the nanoscale (billionths of a meter). Operating at this level, scientists hope to make advancements in harvesting clean, affordable natural energy, such as producing hydrogen by splitting water molecules with sunlight, engineering nanoparticles better equipped to absorb energy-rich wavelengths of solar light and creating molecular electronics out of more energy-efficient materials.
The price tag for this facility? A whopping $912 million. Not to be daunted, the DOE has officially stated the record shows that money invested in scientific ventures always pays for itself. BNL Spokeswoman Kay Cordtz heartily agrees that this will prove especially true in the case of the NSLS II. “I think that much of the science that comes of the new Light Source will be related to discovering green, efficient energy technologies, and there’s an enormous amount of money and time to be saved in finding better, more efficient, more environmentally-friendly ways of generating and transmitting energy,” she said. The Light Source is slated for completion by 2015.

Stony Brook University Medical Center
Stony University Medical Center doesn’t just stand alone as Long Island’s singular academic medical center, but has also earned its own niche as a leader in healthcare, thanks to the university’s dedication to academic and technological superiority. Stony Brook University is one of the nation’s foremost scientific research universities and included among the top 40 institutions funded by the National Science Foundation. The Medical Center is a collaboration between SBU Hospital and the SBU School of Medicine, and serves simultaneously as a patient care, educational and research facility. It offers a dizzying array of services and the various centers so frequently win acclaim or announce cutting-edge advancements in surgical skill and technology, that it’s difficult to highlight just one or two.

Perhaps of special note is the Departments of Pediatrics, which offers comprehensive care to children and newborns, boasts several of the state’s leading physicians and includes the Cody Center (founded to promote excellence in treatment, education and public awareness of Autism and other developmental disorders). And then there’s the new high-tech Rehabilitation Research Lab, which, upon completion later this year, will be the first of its kind on Long Island and work to improve existing methods of treatment for those who suffer from physical and cognitive disabilities. Also burgeoning with momentous news is SBUMC’s Teaching Hospital Cancer Program, which recently received the highest approval rating from the American College of Surgeon’s (ACoS) Commission on Cancer (CoC). The three-year Approval with Commendation accreditation affirms SBUMC’s superior incorporation of clinical and research activities with academic training and community outreach.

Professor and Chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology Theodore G. Gabig, MD, affirms that “The Outstanding Achievement Award from the American College of Surgery marks an important milestone in the development of the Stony Brook University Cancer Center. This award recognizes Stony Brook’s efforts as a teaching program, a select category of hospitals reviewed and accredited by the ACoS, to constantly improve its patient care programs in prevention, early diagnosis and cutting-edge treatment modalities. It will help us to attract outstanding research and teaching faculty, and also will serve as a stimulus to become a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center.” Should Stony Brook gain such status, it will join the 63 NCI-designated cancer centers nationwide—recognized as leaders in the research of cancer development, as well as in preventative and curative treatment.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has already joined the ranks of the National Cancer Institute’s designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers. Of course, having been founded in 1890, it has a bit of a head start on Stony Brook’s 28-year old Medical Center. CSHL’s reputation as a research institution includes a lot of firsts: One of the first research institutions in the world to specialize in genetics, the first discovery of “jumping genes” and the first proposal of the double-helix configuration of DNA. In fact, CSHL has been home to seven Nobel Prize-winning breakthroughs thus far and appears to be well on its way to earning more.
The lab also offers educational opportunities: The Watson School of Biological Sciences grants Ph.D.s in molecular biology, and the Dolan DNA Learning Center provides schooling in genetics to younger students, teachers and families. The Meetings and Courses program and Banbury conferences attract internationally-renowned life scientists for what become historical discourses on current and future research.
This privately-owned, not-for-profit institution is today generating cutting-edge research in the fields of botany, biomedicine, genetics and neuroscience. One particularly exciting item on the potential research menu is assembling “a comprehensive map of the major neural circuits in the mammalian brain.” Led by Professor Partha P. Mitra, Ph.D., the study would attempt to compile a first draft map of a mouse brain within two to three years. Scientists supporting the project contend that obtaining a systematic knowledge of neuroanatomical circuitry in mammals is requisite to ultimately understanding brain dysfunction—such as autism, schitzophrenia and possibly mood disorders—in humans.
The proposed study does face a couple of challenges. Dr. Mitra cites funding as one of them, explaining that “a project of this scale [is] unusual for the neuroscience community.” However, he calls attention to the role the study plays within a larger context: “It is our hope that the types of connectivity studies we have proposed can eventually come to fruition not only for the mouse, but for a whole host of other species, really allowing us to better understand evolutionary changes in the brain’s overall architecture.” Those other species will eventually include humans, though Dr. Mitra is hesitant to project a date for human brain mapping. “At this point, it is difficult to make such an estimate. The necessary techniques are not there yet and there’s certainly an obstacle of available human brains for any postmortem technique, but eventually we hope that the clearly renewed interest in neuroanatomy will give a strong enough push to make a human project a reality.”
The scientists at CSHL long ago set a precedent for making great leaps in scientific knowledge, and it seems that such a leap is long overdue in this particular field. “Francis Crick and Ted Jones lamented the ‘backwardness of human neuroanatomy’ a decade and a half ago,” Dr. Mitra points out, “and we still have very much to overcome here.”

Considering the challenges facing humankind today—depleted energy resources, an unhealthy planet, devastating diseases—I think we all feel there is still “much to overcome.” What a comfort, then, that the best and brightest are hard at work on the case—right here at home.

Aside from those quoted, thanks also to Greg Filiano, Media Relations Manager of SBUMC, and Matthew Hynes, Communications Associate at Cold Spring Harbor Lab.