Research

Carolina’s cores of discovery

Technology, scientific expertise in over 80 facilities support $1.2 billion research enterprise.

Felicia Heyward, a Research Specialist at the UNC Flow Cytometry Core, conducts a Biosafety level-2 sort of human breast cancer cells. Safety precautions such as the Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPR) and biosafety cabinet protect the operator from potentially infectious material during the cell sorting process. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)
Felicia Heyward, a Research Specialist at the UNC Flow Cytometry Core, conducts a Biosafety level-2 sort of human breast cancer cells. Safety precautions such as the Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPR) and biosafety cabinet protect the operator from potentially infectious material during the cell sorting process. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The future of Dr. Kimon Divaris’s research and any help it might give children hinged on 213 saliva samples.

Divaris ’11 (PhD) wanted to study the biology of cavities in pre-school children, which can do long-term damage to mouths and overall health into adulthood. The Adams School of Dentistry associate professor hoped that analyzing differences in DNA from the samples would validate findings from a pilot study that could point to better prevention and treatment of early childhood oral disease and help secure millions in funding.

For the analysis, he turned to the Mammalian Genotyping Core in the School of Medicine, one of 80 core research facilities that support the University’s $1.2 billion in annual sponsored research. Cores provide scientific expertise and technology that accelerate research while employing hundreds of people — scientists, post-doctoral fellows, technicians, healthcare workers, administrators, staff and students.

Kimon Divaris, right, and BSP core director Patricia Basta talking.

Kimon Divaris, right, and BioSpecimen Processing core Director Patricia Basta check in at the BSP. Basta’s facility helped Divaris plan his research study, and also stores 20,000 biological samples for him at the Michael Hooker Research Center. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The core’s high-density genotyping of Divaris’s DNA samples yielded data that strengthened his grant proposal so much he won an $8.5 million, five-year National Institutes of Health grant.

Strengthening grant proposals that researchers submit to funding agencies is just one way cores enhance Carolina’s research. In Divaris’s example, he showed the NIH, which considers knowledge and resources the University provides in its scoring criteria, exciting new data generated by an internal resource. Cores are one reason Carolina ranks fifth nationally in federal research.

What are core facilities?

Most cores operate as shared instrumentation laboratories open to researchers at Carolina, other universities, government labs and industry. They help researchers plan studies, advise on processes, run experiments and analyze biological samples.

The School of Medicine, for instance, supports 30 biomedical core facilities that offer researchers a pipeline of services and technologies Other cores reside in the College of Arts & Sciences, the schools of dentistry, nursing and public health and within larger cores in institutes or centers.

Exterior of UNC's Genome Sciences Building.

From a glass-covered corner of Carolina’s Genome Sciences Building, High Throughput Sequencing Facility technicians use the latest technology to extract genetic and genomic data from biological samples submitted by researchers of diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease and infectious diseases and other ailments. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Most cores serve a regular group of investigators; some have a higher work volume. The High Throughput Sequencing Facility (HTSF), for instance, annually serves up to 100 on-campus researchers and several off campus, and the Chapel Hill Analytical and Nanofabrication Laboratory (CHANL) worked with 63 researchers on campus and 69 externally in fiscal year 2019.

Being customer-oriented, providing a personalized approach and a quality product are points of pride, said Patricia Basta, BioSpecimen Processing Facility director. “We’re really happy when we can handle large numbers of samples with no errors.”

‘Like running a business’

Cores charge fees to recover the cost of salaries, materials, supplies and maintaining instruments but aren’t allowed to have a significant budget surplus.

At the Flow Cytometry Core, in the bottom floor of gleaming Marsico Hall, workers wear haz-mat suits and handle potentially infectious materials in air-tight rooms so sterile they would earn extra credit scores from a health inspector. To researchers, such activity fits in with the daily experiments they’re accustomed to in lab settings. To core personnel, such activity not only furthers research, but also pays the bills.

“It’s like running a business, with each having its services and corresponding charges,” said Nancy Fisher ’88 (PhD), director of the Flow Cytometry Core, which uses various machines to customize experiments, tag protein molecules in biological samples for easy identification and collect them for analysis. “We maintain equipment, help investigators design experiments and teach them how to use technology. It’s fun because you’re always learning and also learning about what people are inventing.”

This core serves nearly 300 labs, mostly from the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, the schools of pharmacy, dentistry, public health and the College of Arts & Sciences.

Michelle Itano, Director of the UNC NeuroscienceMicroscopy Core Facility, watches Hernán Méndez, a UNC graduate research assistant., work on a microscope

Michelle Itano ’12 (PhD), director of the UNC Neuroscience Microscopy Core Facility, works with Hernán Méndez, a graduate research assistant. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

To improve service, directors look for business training. Chris Gregory, director of the Office of Research Technologies, which supports the School of Medicine cores, holds a quarterly meeting for directors and offers training on SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunities, threats) analysis, communication, customer service, rigor and reproducibility and industry contracting.

Established work streams help researchers travel core to core. “We are players in the pipeline,” Fisher said. “Our forte is reproducibility, transparency and focus on the rigor of doing well-controlled experiments.”

From their glass-covered corner of Carolina’s Genome Sciences Building, HTSF technicians use the latest technology to extract genetic and genomic data from biological samples submitted by researchers seeking insights into diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease and infectious diseases and other ailments. Biology professor Corbin Jones is the faculty director of the HTSF. The largest core in several respects with 27 employees and annual revenue approaching $7 million, the HTSF quickly produces genetic and genomic information from biological materials. How quickly? The first human genome sequencing took 13 years; now, it takes only a few days..

Even with rapid automation, Jones stresses his staff’s expertise. “Machines are faster, but if they’re not set up correctly, the same mistake is reproduced over and over, like 100 shirts made incorrectly by machine vs. only one by a tailor.”

Collaboration and resources

At the Microbiome Core in Taylor Hall, posters lining tight, fluorescent-lit hallways give visitors a good idea of the core’s work. Gut microbiota, mosquitoes, buffalo and prehistoric human teeth are just a few examples of biological samples to which staff apply the latest sequencing techniques. Within such varied research, cores often connect potential collaborators.

Research specialist Sonia Deochand, opens a refrigeration unit housing biological samples in the Michael Hooker Research Center. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Research specialist Sonia Deochand, opens a refrigeration unit housing biological samples at the BioSpecimen Processing Facility. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

“The scientist in the lab coat alone in the laboratory suddenly shouting ‘Eureka!’ doesn’t exist anymore,” said director Andrea Azcarate-Peril. “Today, everything is team science, it’s all about ‘I know this portion’ and ‘I know this portion’ and ‘Let’s bring those two together.’ That’s what cores do.”

In addition to collaborators, researchers look for resources before joining Carolina’s faculty. Erik Hanson studies exercise and its effects on cancer patients and their immune systems. Before coming to Carolina, he checked out the services available from the Flow Cytometry Core.

Now an assistant professor of exercise and sport science, Hanson provides blood samples from cancer patients, and the core’s instruments sort, tag and identify specific kinds of cells to provide a snapshot of the immune system.

Having worked with other cores, Hanson sees the value of centralized services. “When the bills arrive, sometimes I’ll grumble some,” he said. “However, it’s a fraction of what it would be otherwise, and they are invaluable to us. The machines are in pristine condition, calibrated and maintained at the highest level. We literally come in, run our samples, clean up, then switch things off.”

And with cores there to handle the samples, maintain the equipment, run the analyses and so much more, Carolina’s researchers can continue forming questions and seeking answers that will help generations to come.

Read about how one researcher’s study moved through Carolina’s collaboration pipeline.