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The Wistar Institute, at 36th and Spruce streets, has just begun expansion construction. Above is a rendering of the new research tower.

History and innovation collide at the Wistar Institute, where scientists are breaking ground on a new facility while continuing their commitment to ground-breaking research.

The biomedical research center broke ground Friday on a new seven-story glass and steel research tower to be constructed at 36th and Spruce streets. The state-of-the-art facility — slated to open in 2014 — will provide a new home for the Institute’s cancer center and will sit adjacent to the Institute’s 117-year-old brick building.

Russel Kaufman, president and chief executive officer of the Wistar Institute, described the construction of the new building as the “corner stone” of the Institute’s strategic plan.

The new building will help advance research at the Institute by providing more laboratory space for scientists to work together. “[It] will have an open space layout,” Altieri said. “It was completely conceived to foster collaboration.”

In addition to renewing the Institute’s infrastructure, the strategic plan also calls for expanding the Institute’s faculty and efforts in two distinct areas of biomedical research: non-coding RNA and tumor microenvironments.

Non-coding RNARNA molecules that are not translated into protein — show promise for the regulation and manipulation of genes that cause cancer, according to Kaufman. “The world of science is looking at how genes all work together and how they are controlled,” he said. “The number one mechanism to control them is through the production of RNA that doesn’t actually make proteins, but actually controls genes.”

“There is more and more evidence that this mechanism of gene regulation is important,” said Dario Altieri, chief scientific officer for the Institute, adding that non-coding RNA molecules are especially important in controlling how tumor cells “develop unregulated growth.”

The Institute’s second scientific initiative is in the study of tumor microenvironments, a study that combines various disciplines to determine how tumors progress. “This type of research suggests that not only is the tumor’s malignant population important, but also its neighbors,” Altieri said.

“Tumors are actually made up of more than malignant cells,” including immune cells and blood vessels, Kaufman said. “What is apparent is that the biology of human cancer is really due to the interaction of all those different types of cells, not just the malignant … We want to determine how they all work together and how one can target not just the malignant cells, but also all the different cells to better control cancer.”

These two research areas “are really based upon questions that people are asking,” Altieri said. Over the next two to four years, the center will be actively recruiting scientists in these disciplines in order to answer the toughest questions.

The Wistar scientists especially value their collaboration with Penn scientists.

“Penn is by far our best and strongest partner,” Kaufman said. “Everyday our scientists collaborate.”

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