ECU Unveils Research & Training Facility

By Jane Dail
The Daily Reflector

February 15, 2014 – East Carolina University unveiled its most recent addition to the Health Sciences Campus on Thursday, marrying research and robotic surgical training in a new facility that the school hopes will attract and connect all levels of scientific academia.

The recently revealed fourth floor of the East Carolina Heart Institute at ECU, 115 Heart Drive, was never supposed to happen.

East Carolina Heart Institute Director Dr. W. Randolph Chitwood Jr. said the building originally was slated to have only three floors. Plans to build up the Edward Warren Life Sciences Building fell apart because of funding shortfalls.

Chitwood said ECU needed a basic science research and a new technology training facility, and officials decided adding the extra floor, which now houses the Robotic Surgery Center and the Diabetes and Obesity Institute, was a necessity.

The newly completed floor boasts 37,000 square feet, costing about $10.5 million to finish and will have between 80 and 120 employees.

“This space is designed to attract new faculty, expand funding amongst the present faculty and foster new technologic learning,” Chitwood said. “It’s been allocated carefully. We’ve allocated the space carefully only to those who demonstrated continued productivity or new faculty members.”

The Diabetes and Obesity Institute, which was kickstarted by a 2007 Golden LEAF grant, has about 50 faculty members from 18 departments at the university who work on basic and clinical research.

Institute Director Darrell Neufer said the new space is designed for researchers at different levels of education to have as much contact as possible, fostering collaboration.

“Our motto is everyone’s brain counts, and that’s what really fuels research environments,” Neufer said.

He said researchers will study all aspects of metabolism at the institute.

The facilities includes a radio isotope room, a cell culture room, a virus room and a mitochondrial phenotyping facility.

“We have more capability to do research on mitochondria than, I think, any lab in the world,” Neufer said.

The Robotics Surgery Center, formerly in the Warren Life Sciences Building, houses the only robotic cardiac surgery training facility in the world, according to Brody School of Medicine Director of Surgical Robotics Dr. L. Wiley Nifong.

Nifong said more than 1,400 members of surgical teams from all over the world have come to ECU to train using the equipment for cardiac, gynecologic, urologic and other surgical procedures.

“We’re currently in the process of creating a fundamentals of robotic surgery that will serve as a curriculum for surgeons all around the world,” he said.

Ron Mitchelson, interim vice chancellor for research and graduate studies, said he is proud the work the centers have already done and look forward to future growth and advancement.

“It fills me with pride when international visitors come here to learn,” he said. “It fills me with pride when (National Institutes of Health), (National Science Foundation) and the rest of those funding agencies want to fund our investigators in this facility.”

Mitchelson said the new facilities will help address key issues that affect eastern North Carolina.

“The region suffers from too much poverty, too little educational attainment and many disease complexes that goes along with those attributes,” he said. “We’re here to address those things.”

Dr. Paul Cunningham, dean of the Brody School of Medicine, said the completion of the building is the result of hard work and patience.

“I have the greatest confidence they will be successful in creating the benefit and return on the investment at East Carolina University we all need in this institution,” Cunningham said. “It will be for the benefit of not just eastern North Carolina but, as I’ve said before, we can change the world from the banks of the mighty Tar River.”

Contact Jane Dail at jdail@reflector.com or 252-329-9585.