How strategic lab design can accelerate our fight against cancer

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For the best minds to solve some of medicine’s biggest problems, the right environment can make a big difference.

Dr. Bruce L. Levine, Kurt Buchholz and Steve Copenhagen

September 22, 2022

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One of the most promising recent trends in cancer research is the development of ground-breaking immunotherapies that use a patient’s own immune system to fight their illness.

The Novartis-Penn Center for Advanced Cellular Therapies (CACT) is among the leaders in this exciting new area of investigation, and we realized early on that the way laboratories are laid out can make a significant difference to how efficiently new therapies can be developed and tested. So as we envisioned and planned the CACT, we wanted a design that promoted close interaction and integration within the larger cellular immunotherapy research program at Penn Medicine. Our goal was to create a critical mass of discovery and production research that would optimize work environments for scientists, maximize process efficiency, allow for flexibility, fuel innovation, and help to attract and retain top talent.

Based on our experience, we have identified six ways strategically designed research facilities are helping accelerate our fight against cancer.

Optimizing geographic proximity 

When solving for a challenge as complex and multi-disciplinary as developing new immunotherapies, there is a high correlation between proximity and productivity. So, we created an environment where it takes no more than a minute for our scientists and technicians to walk from the manufacturing facility to the research labs and everything in between. This ensures that specialty teams, including those focused on manufacturing, quality, clinical operations and facilities operations can always gather quickly, problem solve and troubleshoot face-to-face.

Just as important as the proximity of teams is the proximity of the larger surrounding healthcare, education and research environments. Within the same two connected towers as the larger cancer immunotherapy program at Penn Medicine, there are patient clinics, a medical school, animal research facilities and laboratories. This puts patients, families, staff, clinicians, scientists and students all together in a single complex. The center’s location within the 12 schools of the University at Pennsylvania even further enhances possibilities for cross-disciplinary collaboration, not only at Penn Medicine, but also at the veterinary school and the Wharton Business School.

The CACT (located in the South Tower, highlighted) is completely interconnected to the larger immunotherapy program at Penn Medicine and the greater university campus.

Providing a window into the research within 

All too often, due to the ultra-clean environments needed for immunotherapy development, these spaces and the researchers working within them are invisible to others. This presents two challenges. The first is that operations and facilities teams can’t see issues that arise within the cleanroom. The second is that this incredible research is walled off from public and patient view, which means a huge missed opportunity for education and promotion. By simply working with designers to find safe and reasonable ways to put this science on display, researchers can enhance public perception; strengthen alliances with academic, professional and industrial organizations; and better facilitate dialogue with lawmakers and patient advocates.

For the CACT, the solution was a 3’ x 3’ window in a non-sterile change room so that visitors, including everyone from school groups, to National Geographic reporters, to president Joe Biden, have been able see into the cleanroom spaces without having to gown up. It is not unusual for us to welcome multiple tour groups each week, which speaks to how this facility has become a center for public awareness for how researchers are bringing immunotherapies to a reality.

The CACT is able to show a glimpse into the cleanrooms to groups and prominent guests without them having to gown up. Joe Biden even visited the CACT during his cancer "moonshot" effort during his Vice Presidency.
The viewing window provides a one-of-a-kind glimpse into the cleanroom’s main corridor.

Why put in those extra hours this week? Why invest so much time and education to get here? Why dedicate an entire working lifetime moving toward solving one of the most complex challenges humanity faces today? For many in this profession, their ultimate answer is the patients themselves. Amid the everyday pressures and stresses of the workplace, even such a noble “why” can get lost, morale can dip, and productivity can suffer.

The CACT puts the focus back on the patients in the form of simple portraits mounted on the wall. These pictures feature people who are now fully in remission after successful immunotherapy. The portraits are strong reminders for everyone at the center that they are always working to improve the lives of real people. They are so impactful, in fact, that researchers will often recognize patients through the viewing window when they stop by for a tour. Last year, a former patient currently in remission from childhood leukemia came in for a visit. Looking through the window, she could see the very people who helped deliver her treatment. The researchers recognized her immediately from her portrait, and, since they were completely gowned up from head to toe, they held up a piece of paper that read “Hi Emily!”

Creating environments that retain top talent

An optimized work environment is the baseline standard for this level of research, but what takes a research environment from good to great is the quality of researchers who call it home. Therefore, the comfort and satisfaction of the researchers are crucial, as they can influence recruiting and retention. In many studies, including one from the Well Building Institute, access to daylight throughout the workday is incredibly important to maintain circadian rhythms, which affect productivity, sleep quality and other wellness factors. This isn’t possible for all facilities, however, due to issues associated with light exposure to the sensitive materials being processed.

With floor-to-ceiling windows that surround the center with views of the Philadelphia skyline, the CACT proves this is solvable. To take advantage of the natural light and views, the processing cells are located on the perimeter using a double wall construction design that provides the necessary isolation of the controlled environment. Additionally, to shield the material from ultraviolet rays, the design team installed polarized film on the windows for some of the most sensitive rooms in the facility so that, with a flick of a switch, the polarization is activated, and the media remains safe.

Researchers often comment about the amount of daylight they receive throughout the day and how it positively affects their work. Not only does the center provide views to the outside, but it also contains windows that interconnect all adjacent suites which open up the workspace even more.

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Floor-to-ceiling windows that surround the center with views of the Philadelphia skyline.
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The interconnected windows in the processing suites provide openness and connectivity.

Planning for flexibility for future process efficiencies

Critical to moving research and treatment forward is ensuring flexibility so researchers and facility managers can better adapt to process improvements. One option designers consider for adding flexibility includes providing “soft” spaces adjacent to the validated facility to allow for expansion while maintaining workflows. Another is to make all the processing cell rooms identical, allowing for interchangeability of equipment and protocols. Other flexibility “future proofing” ideas include increased space in shafts, planned open space for future mechanical systems, and, if possible, space for air-side valves and filters so maintenance can occur without needing to enter the controlled environment.

At the CACT, we added an extra space we called the “automation room.” At the outset, it was loosely defined as a room where the team could pull certain pieces of equipment out of the process rooms to free up utilization and produce more treatments in a shorter amount of time. This room has been critical to thinking about new, more efficient workflows and methods of processing without reinvesting in the time or money to build more capacity. 

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The cell processing rooms are all identical, allowing for greater process efficiency.

Educating and training the next generation

With true future-facing facilities, one eye must always look toward educating the next generation of scientists who will continue the fight against cancer. Incorporating training programs into research facilities is paramount not only to the success of current research, but also to keep the pipeline full of the best and most qualified candidates. In addition, there is a huge opportunity to partner with academia to help create the platform from which immunotherapies are studied.

The CACT, therefore, includes a training module adjacent to the quality control laboratory that is set up to mimic a processing room. There, new members of the team can train for work on the science without gowning up.

At Penn Medicine, medical students are frequently brought on tours. There is a Penn graduate program in gene therapy and vaccines that attracts top applicants from around the world. There is also a master's in translational research, a course on cell and gene therapies, and Penn Medicine conferences highlighting cell and gene therapies. All of these serve the ultimate goal of expanding the field and increasing interest in immunotherapy careers at all levels.

Design itself may not be able to cure diseased cells in the body, but it has dramatic impacts on helping those creating breakthrough cancer treatments work faster and more effectively. Ignoring strategic design and layout of our research facilities delays progress. And, when it comes to battling cancer, we cannot afford to overlook any resource that will save more lives—and doing it sooner.

About the authors: Dr. Bruce Levine is the Barbara and Edward Netter Professor in Cancer Gene Therapy at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. Stephen Copenhagen is a senior laboratory planner and designer with CannonDesign. Kurt Buchholz is the Director of Facility Operations at the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies.

This piece originally published in the Scientific American.