CHAMPAIGN — With the extension of Fourth Street last fall and Yahoo's groundbreaking celebration this week, the University of Illinois Research Park's expansion eastward is starting to pick up steam.
As development moves ahead in the park, UI officials are poised to take a step, albeit a small one, toward coming up with a plan for the park's neighbors to the south: the hogs and piglets that make up the swine research facilities.
For years, members of the research park's board of managers have talked about wanting to move the swine research facilities south of Windsor Road. But the lack of money to do so has stalled any progress.
The current plan does not provide for any funding of new swine research facilities, but a campus official has agreed to pick up the costs associated with a study to learn more about the needs of university researchers who work with the animals.
In biomedical research, pigs are often used as human models. UI research with pigs in recent years has delved into areas such as reproduction, bone regeneration, and learning and memory.
The animals currently used for this type of research are housed within a cluster of single-story buildings south of Hazelwood Drive between First and Fourth Streets, south of the new building to house Yahoo and south of the I Hotel and Conference Center.
In addition to housing the animals, the buildings have laboratory and surgical spaces.
The buildings date back to the 1960s through the 1980s, though updates have been made to them in recent years.
"The research park is expanding and thriving. It seems we ought to really start thinking hard about the future of this facility," said Vice Chancellor for Research Peter Schiffer.
His office will pay for a "needs assessment." It will entail bringing in people from outside the university to interview UI researchers and others who use the swine facilities to learn about current and future space and equipment needs, he said.
Currently, there is no consensus on what would be an ideal replacement, Schiffer said.
When animals are used as models for human health, there are specific requirements, such as in temperature regulation and on how they're housed, said Neal Merchen, professor of animal sciences and an associate dean in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.
"There's a significant higher investment that's required" to build or renovate space for biomedical research, he said.
Professors from several different colleges perform research and conduct procedures there, including ACES; veterinary medicine; engineering; and liberal arts and sciences.
"It's a well-used facility," Schiffer said.
The space is booked two years out for a variety of research programs.
The needs assessment is expected to be conducted this spring.
Once it is completed, the university could move on to the next step of obtaining a "feasibility study," which would entail seeking information from specialists in areas such as waste management, heating, air-conditioning and ventilation systems, utilities and more. That's estimated to cost $300,000 to $400,000.