THERAPEUTIC FUTURE: Iconic RTP building makes way for new research facility

Mar. 03, 2013 @ 06:42 PM

Some parts of the Elion-Hitchings Building are destined for demolition this year as United Therapeutics gears up to build a new cutting-edge research laboratory.

The old facility in Research Triangle Park, featured in Natalie Wood's last movie - “Brainstorm” - in 1983, includes lab and warehouse structures built in the 1960s and 1980s.

Martine Rothblatt, CEO of United Therapeutics, wants to preserve some of the building. What they keep, she said, they'll renovate.

“We felt it was very important to preserve all of the iconic portions of the Elion-Hitchings Building – all of the portions that can be seen from the road, for example,” she said.

Her company acquired the property from GlaxoSmithKline in June 2012.

The demolition work isn't expected to be quick.

“Because we're preserving all of the good parts of the building, you can't just take a wrecking ball to the situation and just smash the whole thing down,” Rothblatt said.

The new lab facility will resemble a star when viewed from overhead. The design should allow scientists to keep at least six different types of pigs for engineering lung tissues and transplantation research. It will have a central hub to simplify delivery of food and water to the animals.

“If some of the pigs, let's say, have eight of their genes that have been modified and some of the other pigs have nine of their genes that have been modified, you can't mix all of them together,” she said. Both would be considered distinctly different medical products.

She's pleased with the location in RTP, adjacent to the company's existing property, as a good location to recruit talent. United Therapeutics expects to hire more employees for the new facility.

George Smart, executive director of Triangle Modernist Houses – a nonprofit devoted to preservation of modern homes – said United Therapeutics is preserving the most important part of the building. Lab space out back was never “particularly architecturally significant,” he said.

Sean Khorsandi, co-director of the Paul Rudolph Foundation, would rather see the entire structure preserved.

“This comes back down to the question: If you're running out of space, do you keep the Picasso painting and [get rid of] the sketches?” Khorsandi mused.

He said that he thinks it's harder to reach the public about the value of research labs and other private-use buildings.

“There are other examples of buildings that have been saved and renovated, and they're great icons,” he said. “There is renewed appreciation for this work. It's a matter of tastes are changing, but you need to get the right attention to the right people.”

Bob Geolas, president and CEO of the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina – managing organization for RTP – called United Therapeutics' solution “a very smart one.”

“I think they've done a very smart thing in wanting to preserve what I think are the historical aspects of the building, but at the same time doing what they need to do to make the right kinds of space that will serve the needs of their company and their employees,” he said.