ECHI Robotics, Research Floor

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Spaces for collaborative research are abundant on the fourth floor of the East Carolina Heart Institute. The 37,000-square-foot space officially opened with a tour for Board of Trustees members Feb. 13. Pictured above is research tech Hetal Patel. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

Research, robotics floor opens at the East Carolina Heart Institute at ECU

Feb. 14, 2014

By Kathryn Kennedy
ECU News Services

A new space for collaborative medical research and robotics training was lauded by East Carolina University officials this week as a visionary project at the heart of the university’s mission and talents.

The fourth floor of the East Carolina Heart Institute at ECU officially opened Feb. 13 as part of the regular two-day Board of Trustees meeting. Board members, faculty and other guests toured the 37,000-square-foot space, which includes advanced laboratories and simulated clinical rooms.
Ron Mitchelson, interim vice chancellor for research and graduate studies, at left, and Dr. W. Randolph Chitwood, director of the East Carolina Heart Institute, enjoy opening events for the institute's fourth floor.

The ECHI opened in 2008 with the mission of becoming an internationally recognized cardiovascular institute known for high quality patient care, leading-edge technology, widespread education and both basic science and clinical research.

“This is the final piece of the creation of the ECHI,” said Dr. Wiley Nifong, director of surgical robotics at the Brody School of Medicine. “This is the research piece of our mission. And it is a remarkable facility -- it is open, not like individual labs with doors that separate; it will facilitate collaboration between investigators. There's nothing like this on ECU's campus from a research perspective.”

The Robotic Surgery Center for Training and Research – the only robotic cardiac surgery training facility in the world – has moved from the Warren Life Sciences Building to the ECHI fourth floor. Nearly 1,400 clinical personnel from five continents have trained in robotic cardiac, thoracic, gynecologic, urologic and general surgery at the center.

Also housed in the area will be the East Carolina Diabetes and Obesity Institute, including researchers from the Brody School of Medicine and College of Health and Human Performance who are studying metabolism-related fields. The Diabetes and Obesity Institute has approximately 50 affiliated faculty members from 18 ECU departments working in basic and clinical research. In fiscal year 2012-13, external grant funding for all affiliated faculty members totaled more than $4.6 million.
At far right Dr. P. Darrell Neufer, director of the East Carolina Diabetes and Obesity Institute, leads a tour through the East Carolina Heart Institute fourth floor research and robotics training facility. Joining the tour is Steve Thomas, dean of Allied Health Sciences at far left, and ECU Chancellor Steve Ballard, second from right.

“Everyone’s brain counts,” remarked its director, Dr. P. Darrell Neufer. “And that’s what really fuels research environments.”

Approximately 80 to 120 people will work on the fourth floor.

“ECU strives to be a national model for student success, public service and regional transformation,” said Ron Mitchelson, interim vice chancellor for research and graduate studies. “When you put this mission to work…this is the type of thing you get.

“It fills me with pride when international visitors come here to learn. I’m a geographer, and I just couldn’t be happier to have this place put us on the map.”

Board of Trustees members were equally impressed, said Vice Chair Steve Jones of Raleigh, who also chairs the board’s Health Sciences Committee.

“For Greenville, North Carolina to have such a facility is just incredible,” he said. “(We’re proud of) what it brings not just locally, but nationally and to people from around the world. Everybody was just blown away.”

Jones also lauded the leadership of Dr. W. Randolph Chitwood, director of the ECHI.

“This space is designed to attract new faculty, expand funding amongst present faculty and foster new technologic learning,” Chitwood said. “This is all about collaboration and believe me, things are beginning to multiply exponentially – even as we sit here – from day to day.”

The $10.5 million fourth floor build out was paid for by funds from the Division of Health Sciences at ECU. A $1 million grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation bought equipment for the diabetes institute.


Jeannine Manning Hutson and Doug Boyd of ECU News Services contributed to this article.

ECU Board of Trustees member Carol Mabe, far right, enjoys a tour of the East Carolina Heart Institute facilities as part of the Board of Trustees meeting.