$14 million in stimulus funds to Washington University for construction

Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has received a $14.3 million grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to expand its high-powered data center for genomics. The facility’s sophisticated computer networks store massive amounts of genomic data used to identify the genetic origins of cancer and other diseases.

The project is expected to create more than 350 jobs, including 200 in local construction, and accelerate the pace of genomics-based discoveries, for which Washington University is widely known.

The university’s scientists have pioneered the sequencing of cancer patients’ genomes and are engaged in ambitious research to decode the genomes of hundreds of microbes that inhabit the body.

“These projects are helping scientists worldwide understand the genetic basis of cancer and the contributions of microbes to human health and disease,” says Larry J. Shapiro, M.D., executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. “We could not continue this vital research without expanding the data center, which houses the computer infrastructure that allows our scientists to analyze unprecedented volumes of data.”

The award comes from the National Center for Research Resources, part of the National Institutes of Health. It brings the total ARRA funds awarded to Washington University to approximately $100 million.

The project will double the size of the existing data center to nearly 32,000 square feet. The facility is located at Duncan and Newstead avenues on the Washington University Medical Center campus. The new addition will be built on the facility’s east side, with construction expected to begin in the fall.

The existing data center is the first “green” building on the medical school’s campus and has received the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold status by the U.S. Green Building Council. This was a major challenge for architects and engineers who designed the building because of the energy requirements of specialized cooling systems for the computer equipment. The new addition is designed to exceed those standards.

Washington University scientists have long been at the forefront of genomic discoveries. Researchers at the university’s Genome Center were principal contributors to the Human Genome Project, completed in 2003. Those same researchers now are sequencing the genomes of hundreds of adult and pediatric cancer patients — and as a comparison, the genomes of their tumor cells — to identify the genetic changes underlying many different types of cancer. While the initial Human Genome Project took a decade and cost $2.7 billion, scientists can now sequence a human genome for less than $50,000 in only several days’ time using advanced sequencing technology.

Faster DNA sequencing machines mean genome scientists generate exponentially greater data today than was possible even a few years ago.

“It’s comparable to improvements in digital camera technology but on a much larger scale,” says Richard K. Wilson, Ph.D., director of The Genome Center. “Think how fast your digital camera’s storage card would fill up if you took thousands more high-resolution pictures each day. In a few months’ time, you would need a larger computer to store those files and an easy way to access them. The data center provides the extra space and more efficient data processing so we can access and analyze tremendous amounts of data.”

The human genome is written in 3 billion letters of genetic code, a sequence of A’s, C’s, G’s and T’s. To understand how much data that is, scientists estimate that if a person’s genome were written in a book, it would fill 200,000 pages and take almost 10 years to read without stopping.

The existing data center currently houses a network of some 5,000 computer processors with more than 5 petabytes (5 million gigabytes) of disk storage that run around the clock. The expanded facility will store double that computer power.

Nearly $100 million in federal research funding comes to the School of Medicine each year to support major DNA sequencing and analysis projects.

The estimate of jobs related to the construction award is based on an analysis by the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association that takes into account how the university’s expenditures affect the local economy.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked third in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.