A new space for biomedical engineering research

Writer: 
June 12, 2018

When Adam Wax A.M. ’96, Ph.D. ’99, president and chief scientist of Lumedica, has a question about the basic science behind the design of the affordable, cutting-edge biomedical imaging machines Lumedica makes, sometimes he needs to go back to his lab at Duke, where he’s professor of biomedical engineering.

The journey covers exactly one stairway.

The Lumedica lab lives on the third floor of the Chesterfield, on Main Street in downtown Durham, which had its grand opening in December 2017. Lumedica got its creative start in Wax’s research in his lab in the Fitzpatrick Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering, Medicine, and Applied Sciences (FCIEMAS) on West Campus. It grew to the point where it needed its own lab space, which it now rents from BioLabs North Carolina, a wet-lab coworking space that occupies the second and third floors of the newly renovated Chesterfield. Duke itself rents space on the fourth floor, where Wax recently opened up a new lab as part of his work as a Duke professor, though he still keeps the machines whirring and the postdocs thinking in his biomedical interferometry optics and spectroscopy lab back at FCIEMAS.

Seems like a lot of moving parts? Welcome to the future of biomedical engineering and research. Welcome to the Chesterfield.

Lumedica makes small, portable versions of the kind of equipment to which poorer communities commonly have trouble getting access. Showing off his spaces in the Chesterfield, Wax explains a device that provides retinal imaging using optical coherence tomography—called OCT, it’s the optical equivalent to ultrasound, producing high-resolution, three-dimensional images without tissue destruction. He says such devices usually cost in the $100,000 range, limiting their use to wealthy, urban hospitals. Imagine, he says, being a poor diabetic patient in, say, Lumberton, worried about retinal problems and having to travel to Durham for an eye exam checking for early retinal disease. It’s a big ask, and the result is poor care for poorer people. Which is where Lumedica steps in.

“We make a low-cost portable device the size of a shoebox that you can carry with you,” Wax says. “It’s under $10,000.”

In his Duke lab, on the fourth floor—Duke rents about 40 percent of the Chesterfield—Wax shows off tables of equipment: lenses, screens, 3D-printed components, and a prototype of that shoebox-sized unit. One floor down on a quiet bench of the BioLabs space he demonstrates OCT, examining the layers of a roll of tape. Research goes on upstairs, in the lab. “We generate revenue downstairs,” he says. Duke gets a piece of the payoff, of course, but Wax is clear: “Money is nice, but I didn’t pick to be a professor to make money. What I want to see is the device have an effect on patient care.”

The Chesterfield, originally built in 1948, sits on the site of Washington Duke’s first in-town mansion. That was replaced by what is now the executive office building, and that in turn was moved across the street when the time came for the new Chesterfield factory, a 300,000-squarefoot behemoth that churned out six packs of cigarettes per second.

Wexford Science and Technology, which redeveloped the Chesterfield, basically cored the building—removing the center of each floor to create a skylit atrium that provides social space on the main floor and a light well the rest of the way up. Bright artwork covers the lobby walls, using the colors of the old Chesterfield cigarette logo. Various preservation tax credits provided an incentive for the designers of the renovation to leave structural elements exposed and preserve original tile walls.

Apart from providing a model of that research-to-revenue pathway, the Chesterfield is an amenity in itself. “You can bike to work, you can Uber, you’ve got places to walk,” Wax says. “That’s an important part of getting talent” for his labs. Scott Selig M.B.A. ’92, Duke associate vice president of capital assets, agrees: “We want to use this to lure the next Nobel laureate.”

He could be echoing the words of Dan Cramer ’75, president and COO of Wexford. “It’s not just a real-estate play,” he says of the Chesterfield. “It’s advancing the strategic mission of the university into these knowledge-based buildings.”

“When I was still in school here, it was still open,” Cramer says of the old cigarette factory. “You could smell it. Now it’s being used to cure cancer.”

  • Scott Huler is the senior writer at Duke Magazine.