Launchpad for Discovery: The Hugh Kaul Human Genetics Building

The Hugh Kaul Human Genetics Building serves as the “central nervous system” of UAB’s groundbreaking human genetics endeavors.

Dr. Tim Townes and Dr. Bruce Korf Dr. Tim Townes and Dr. Bruce Korf The dedication of the Hugh Kaul Human Genetics Building in 2001 launched a new era of medical advancements at UAB. The Hugh Kaul Foundation donated $6.5 million for the construction of the eight-story, 155,183-square-foot building. With that gift, the Hugh Kaul Foundation made a permanent mark on the quality of life-saving research and patient care in Alabama and beyond.

The Hugh Kaul Human Genetics Building is home to an interdisciplinary group of faculty focused on conducting basic laboratory and clinical research, patient care, and state-of-the-art genetic testing. UAB ranks among the top public institutions in terms of research and training awards from the National Institutes of Health. The building has housed research in numerous areas, including gene-based therapy for brain tumors, genetic factors related to the progression of HIV/AIDS, hemochromatosis, vector development, and cystic fibrosis.

At the time of its dedication, the building was showcased as a powerful recruiting tool in UAB’s efforts to bring world-class researchers and clinicians to Birmingham. And it worked.

“I’ve been here almost 13 years, and the Hugh Kaul Human Genetics Building was critical to convincing me to come here from Harvard in 2002,” says Department of Genetics Chair Bruce Korf, M.D., Ph.D., Wayne H. and Sara Crews Finley Chair in Medical Genetics and director of the Heflin Center for Genomic Sciences. In 2014, Korf was named a fellow by the American Association for the Advancement of Science for distinguished contributions to the field of human and medical genetics.

The building also houses the work of Tim Townes, Ph.D., the James C. and Elizabeth T. Lee Chair of Biochemistry and chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, as he and his team seek a cure for severe combined immunodeficiency, a disorder that is lethal in infancy without treatment. In 1997, Townes and Thomas Ryan, Ph.D., created the first practical animal model of sickle cell disease, a hereditary blood disorder.

Having what Korf calls the “central nervous system” of UAB’s human genetics endeavors is critical to accelerating medical advancements. It allows scientists and physicians to collaborate in an “end-to-end approach,” he says, using the latest technology in the lab to discover the mechanisms of disease and eventually applying that knowledge to patient treatment.

"For example, we have one of the most widely recognized programs in neurofibromatosis,” Korf says. “Our lab is viewed as the gold standard for NF testing. We are the place people come to when they find an NF genetic variant because we have a thousand times the experience here of anyone else in this area.”

The UAB NF Program is the national coordinating center for the NF Clinical Trials Consortium, funded by the Department of Defense to perform clinical trials for all forms of neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that causes tumors to form on nerve tissue. Another notable program, the Undiagnosed Diseases Program, uses genetic and genomic technologies to try to diagnose patients with rare medical conditions.

“We serve the community, but we also serve a national and international patient base,” Korf said. “These are destination programs known well beyond Birmingham. We aspire to be a program that people choose to come to from wherever they live.”