Take a Closer Look at USC’s Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine

The secret to curing cancer might just lie within collaborative design.

Earth tones and expansive wood-paneled hallways dominate the interior design of the new Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine of USC. Completed in July 2020 by multidisciplinary design firm Rios, the interior of the 84,000-square-foot institute in West Los Angeles provides a space for holistic collaboration to flourish. To encourage transparency among scientists, doctors, and patients, most rooms are separated by glass. Floor-to-ceiling windows and an abundance of green plants bring the healing forces of nature inside. The ultra-contemporary institute, which was established with a $200 million donation from Oracle co-founder and former CEO Larry Ellison, opened its doors in September 2021.

We caught up with David Agus, MD, a renowned physician and the institute’s founding director and CEO, to learn more about how the facility’s design serves cancer research.

How does the Ellison Institute improve or aid cancer research that was already happening at USC?

Previously, our research team was based on the USC Health Sciences Campus northeast of downtown L.A., separated from our clinic in Beverly Hills. The union of the clinic and the laboratories in the Ellison Institute has been critical, as their activities feed off of each other. We created a space where mathematicians, engineers, physicists, chemists, biologists, and others can work together on one thing: understanding and treating cancer. This new building has taken our resources, our focus, and our collaboration to new levels. We can progress at a much faster pace.

Were there any unique challenges that you’re aware of in designing the space?

No one has built a building like this before. Research labs, clinics, pharmacies, clinical labs, educational facilities, and think tanks all intersect in one space. We had the freedom to design the building of the future, the building of our dreams, and to make it something special. While it was a wonderful opportunity to craft something transformational, we had a responsibility: to make the building move the cancer research field forward.

Tell me more about the collaborative process between patients, researchers, and doctors. Where do you envision this collaboration taking place?

We don’t have a traditional waiting room. Instead, we encourage patients to wander the building, to interact with our scientists, and to ask questions. Our patient rooms are large and comfortable. Families and team members can meet inside them. Conference rooms have glass walls so we can always stay connected. A meeting of the minds can occur anywhere with anyone in one of the institute’s indoor or outdoor public social spaces. The Hippocrates conference room (meeting rooms are named after great thinkers) shares a wall with a lab, so scientists can work side by side on different projects. We also accommodate visiting scientists from around the world in on-site residences to help us with our mission.

Each of the 12 laboratories has glass walls. What is the significance of this design element for researchers and clinicians?

The glass walls serve two purposes. One is for education. Students can go on tours and see scientists at work in real time without interfering with the work. We hope students will be inspired to become scientists, nurses, doctors, and laboratory technicians. Second, patients and researchers interact and learn from each other. When patients walk by and see the researchers through the walls, they see hope personified. When the researchers see the patients, they work even harder and faster for a breakthrough.

What is the vision behind the building’s Wellness Center?

To understand peace, you must go to war. We created the Wellness Center to practice what we have learned about wellness from the war on cancer. Beyond having their cancer treated, cancer patients need long-term wellness.

What is your favorite architectural feature of the project?

The 8-foot tall, 3,000-pound Hope sculpture by Robert Indiana that sits right at the heart of our institute. It is the most powerful symbol of our mission: to give a glimpse of hope to people suffering from disease.