Biodesign, TGen Form New Computational Biology Center

By Nicole Hemsoth

February 10, 2006

To help usher in a new era of molecular diagnostics and personalized medicine, Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute and the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) have teamed up to establish the Center for Systems and Computational Biology.

The new center, one of the first of its kind in the nation, will accelerate the pace of biomedical research, directly affect patient care and provide new funding opportunities for TGen and ASU.

George Poste, director of the Biodesign Institute, and Jeffrey Trent, president and scientific director of TGen, will oversee the center.

Systems biology is an emerging science that requires highly integrated efforts between biologists, physicians, chemists, engineers and computer scientists. It combines “wet lab” research with “dry lab” computational technologies to help identify the molecular pathways relevant to disease. The resulting benefits to medicine may include better clinical trials, personalized therapies and improved diagnostics, drugs and vaccines.

“Much of our focus at the Biodesign Institute is in trying to understand biological function and the significance of disease at the most fundamental level – its molecular circuitry,” Poste says. “This knowledge has enormous implications for every aspect of medicine, as well as other fields of science.”

“At TGen, our focus is entirely on developing earlier diagnostics and smarter treatments,” Trent adds. “This new collaboration leverages the fast-growing field of computational biology to speed research and directly impact patients. Additionally, this partnership opens the door to new research and funding avenues for TGen and ASU.”

Accelerating research

The Center for Systems and Computational Biology will use the extraordinary power of the ASU-TGen supercomputer to accelerate research by quickly analyzing the billions of data points generated by genetic research. For example, a researcher at a major U.S. university estimated it would take him 3.4 years to analyze his clinical trial data. By using the ASU-TGen supercomputer, the analysis was completed in less than three days.

“This leading edge Biodesign-TGen partnership will facilitate the acceleration of research to develop smarter treatments and targeted therapies tailored to an individual,” Trent says.

Patient impact

The new center will directly affect patients by providing the technology needed to interpret data and understand the underlying genetic cause of disease. For example, in 2004, researchers at TGen uncovered the genetic basis for one form of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). This discovery was made by mining genetic information from nine families living in a small Old Order Amish community in central Pennsylvania. The underlying genetic cause was found to be abnormalities in a specific gene. Mapping and identification of the gene was performed in less than two months.

Poste explains that, despite knowing that diseases and patients are not uniform, medical science is unable to tailor therapies to an individual, leading to treatments that are ineffective in some people or cause serious adverse reactions in others. Annually, more than 2 million people are hospitalized, and between 80,000 and 120,000 die from adverse drug reactions.

“This is the most important reason the one-size-fits-all approach to drug treatment cannot continue,” Poste says. “We urgently need the right drug for the right subtype of disease, and the right drug for the right patient. Fulfilling the promise of personalized medicine is dependent upon unraveling this complexity.”

New funding opportunities

The center will open a channel for additional research, funding and economic opportunities for collaboration with industry and other institutions to commercialize platform technologies, license intellectual property and create spinoff companies.

“We are rapidly moving toward a day when the complete digitization of all biological and medical data will be possible,” Poste says. “In the coming decade, we will be able to capture millions of measurements from just a single drop of blood.”

Plans for the new center include recruitment of a world-class scientist to direct the center, as well as additional leading researchers. Two highly talented biocomputing scientists – Michael Bittner at TGen and Sudhir Kumar at the Biodesign Institute – also will participate to launch innovative new programs.

The expert team will rely on scientists at ASU and TGen, shared faculty appointments between institutions, and the supercomputing facilities at ASU. The center also will interact closely with ASU's new School of Computing and Informatics, directed by Sethuraman Panchanathan, and the Arizona Biomedical Collaborative (ABC) building, which is under construction downtown.

This new effort adds to the list of partnerships among the institutions. In their brief histories, the Biodesign Institute and TGen have demonstrated a strong degree of collaboration and support.

The Biodesign Institute launched a joint spinoff company, NanoBiomics, in 2004 to develop and commercialize genomic-based diagnostics using nanoscale-processing technologies.

NanoBiomics was recognized as the start-up company of the year last spring by the Arizona BioIndustry Association. It then was acquired by a local start-up, Molecular Profiling Inc., which was based in part on research done at TGen.

Molecular Profiling applies molecular diagnostics to designing personalized care for cancer patients and has forged major alliances with AmeriPath Inc. and U.S. Oncology.

“We are at the very early stages of using systems biology as an important approach to drug discovery and development,” Poste says. “Our ability to make useful measurements has far outpaced our ability to utilize them. Biological systems are of such complexity, and the ability to assemble the relevant clinical, biological and biochemical knowledge is a serious barrier to the effective use of this data.”

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