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Harvard unveils plans for complex

Stem cell lab at heart of facility

The first building of Harvard University's new campus in Allston will be a 500,000-square-foot science complex, with a state-of-the-art stem cell laboratory at its heart, according to plans unveiled yesterday by university officials and Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

The complex, which Harvard hopes to begin building next year, will be the first construction in its Allston initiative, an ambitious 50-year plan to dramatically expand the Harvard campus in a 200-acre area across the Charles River from the main Cambridge campus. As the design progresses, it probably will attract close attention -- from neighbors, Harvard faculty, and alumni, as well as others -- looking for signs of what the new Harvard will look like.

The plans for the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, which will occupy at least a quarter of the space in the new facility, advance Harvard's efforts to bypass restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research imposed by President Bush.

Federal restrictions have ''led to situations in which, for example, a graduate student in the middle of an experiment cannot touch a particular piece of equipment because it has been paid for by federal funds," Dr. Steven E. Hyman, Harvard's provost, said at a news conference yesterday. ''The best way to proceed efficiently with this research is in a new building with new equipment."

The complex will also be important to the city as it attempts to solidify its position as one of the world's top centers for biotechnology, Menino said in a speech at the Seaport Hotel yesterday.

''The implications for the well-being of humanity are staggering, the potential economic spin-off enormous," Menino said.

The new complex that the institute will be a part of will be built on Western Avenue, east of the intersection with North Harvard Street and next to the WGBH building. It's a short walk from the Harvard Business School and Harvard Stadium.

The location is important, Hyman said, because it will make it easier for scientists from the Harvard faculty to collaborate with scientists in the Longwood medical area, about 2 miles away. Harvard scientists have said that as the research progresses, they want to turn the work into new ways of treating diseases.

Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers has said that this kind of cooperative work -- between the hospitals and the university, and among different departments of the university -- will be a hallmark of the Allston campus.

The competitive environment of stem cell research, seen by many as likely to play an important role in the future of biotechnology, has been shifting quickly. In 2004, Harvard announced plans for its stem cell institute, with a fund-raising goal of $100 million in private funds. That same year, South Korean scientists announced that they had created cloned human embryonic stem cells, an important advance that appeared to put South Korean scientists well ahead of their American colleagues. And in November 2004, California voters approved $3 billion to fund stem cell research in that state, adding to fears that the Boston area was losing its edge in stem cell research.

But California's plans have become tangled in court battles and the South Korean work on cloning has been unmasked as fraud -- leaving Harvard in a strong position to be one of the world's top centers of stem cell research. Two teams at Harvard are among a handful in the world that have said they plan to try to create cloned embryonic stem cells to study diseases.

''We never celebrate the complications of our peers because we think that the field overall benefits when there are many participants contributing," said Dr. David Scadden, codirector of the stem cell institute, and director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Regenerative Medicine. ''But this is something that is a real step forward for us when there seems to be a stall in some of the other programs."

Research on embryonic stem cells is controversial because it involves the destruction of days-old human embryos. The attempt to create cloned human embryonic stem cells has been even more controversial.

In traditional embryonic stem cell research, scientists typically use frozen embryos that fertility clinics planned to discard, but with cloning, the researchers create embryos that are then destroyed.

The Harvard Stem Cell Institute supports a wide variety of research, much of it noncontroversial, such as work on how blood is formed and studies using mice.

The complex announced yesterday has not been designed. It may be a single building or a collection of buildings, Harvard officials said.

Hyman said that the university has not decided on other tenants for the complex, but that they probably would include other interdisciplinary efforts, such as perhaps a new center for chemical biology, that would benefit from close association with the scientists of the stem cell institute.

Hyman said that the architects, Behnisch Architects of Stuttgart, Germany, were chosen in part for their dedication to environmentally friendly design, which he said would be an important part of Harvard's expansion plans.

In Cambridge, Behnisch designed the Genzyme headquarters, a state of the art ''green" building. The design also will place a premium on preserving the campus feel of Harvard, and would be welcoming to the public, Hyman said.

Gareth Cook can be reached at Geoff Edgers and Thomas C. Palmer Jr. of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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