NIH unveils its new, repaired lab

Construction issues in past, officials say

June 03, 2008|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,Sun reporter

National Institutes of Health officials unveiled their new laboratory building in Southeast Baltimore during a carefully choreographed tour yesterday, saying the vibration and other problems that affected the facility are behind it.

"We overcame a lot of challenges," said Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health. He dismissed the troubles as a natural part of constructing a complex laboratory and said building vibrations are now low enough that they are "not a real problem."

Dr. Richard J. Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, voiced a "high level of confidence" that the building's issues are past and the new facility will not affect work relocating there.

Nevertheless, officials said more than 80 scientists can't move because vibrations would skew their research results. Those scientists, composing a key team investigating the cardiovascular aspects of aging and another team that probes diabetes treatment, will stay behind in their old labs on the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center campus.

NIH officials said the total cost of the 500,000-square-foot building is $278 million, about 25 percent more than originally estimated. NIH is leasing the building from a Johns Hopkins-related corporation.

The laboratory was originally scheduled to open in the fall of 2006. NIH officials hailed it as a high-tech replacement for the antiquated building long in use, while local officials said it would spur the area's redevelopment.

But construction was marked by setbacks, most notably the vibrations, which were disclosed in a report by The Sun. Also, a shaky retaining wall required repair and, more recently, water service was disrupted. Last month, the roof sprung a leak.

Yesterday's brief tour of the Biomedical Research Center was designed to showcase a state-of-the-art government laboratory and the cutting-edge research into aging and drug addiction starting to take place inside it.

"So far, so good," said Yue Wang, a neuroscientist probing Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases in a fifth-floor lab that uses special tables to minimize the impact of building vibrations on high-powered microscopes. Wang said his lab has been testing the microscopes to make sure they're working correctly in their new location and hasn't found any problems.

In the basement, scientists Yihong Yang and Thomas Ross welcomed the extra space available to conduct MRIs on drug addicts in an effort to learn how drug use alters the brain and how addiction could be treated.

NIH officials estimate the relocation of 450 scientists and their laboratories should be completed by August. NIH is looking at renovating the old laboratory building where they had been based since 1968.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who grew up near the site and whose father was examined and treated by government aging scientists, expressed delight after she and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin were given a private briefing on the new facility.

"We're going to win Nobel prizes here," said Mikulski, who had pushed for funding of the new building. In her brief remarks, Mikulski didn't mention the construction problems.

NIH officials said the problems have been repaired, and they said recent testing showed that the building's high vibrations have lessened now that concrete has cured and walls have been finished. Building vibrations are now well within acceptable industry standards, NIH officials said.

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