Public Release: 

National Institutes of Health awards $15.5 million grant to independent biology lab

Molecular Sciences Institute (MSI) aims to develop computer models of cellular signaling, open door to faster drug discovery, targeted treatments

Molecular Sciences Institute

August 5, 2002, Berkeley, CA - The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) of the National Institutes of Health has awarded the Molecular Sciences Institute a $15.5 million, 5-year grant supporting MSI's Center for Genomic Experimentation and Computation (CGEC). The federal government also named CGEC one of its four Centers of Excellence in Genomic Sciences, an acknowledgement of the MSI's past and future research contributions to the new field of predictive biology. MSI, a nonprofit research laboratory that combines genomic experimentation with computer modeling, is the first independent research institute to be recognized as a Center of Excellence under this program.

"The Center of Excellence in Genomic Sciences program brings together teams of investigators from different disciplines to encourage innovation and lay the groundwork for new genomics approaches to the study of human biology and disease," said Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. "The NHGRI fosters these extraordinary collaborations because we believe they will produce important but unpredictable insights into genomics."

The grant supports MSI's Alpha Project, an ambitious effort to examine communication within cells and to develop computer models that accurately predict intra-cellular signaling. One ultimate goal of this research is to reveal insights that enable much more precisely targeted treatments for diseases.

"The Human Genome Project has shown us what proteins are encoded by the genome, but we still don't know very much about how individual proteins within cells interact with each other to cause diseases or other complex outcomes. Our work aims to understand this choreography so that we can predict the results of cellular changes, and ultimately, how certain changes contribute to disease," says Roger Brent, Ph.D., scientific director and president of MSI.

"Unique, interdisciplinary approaches to large scale scientific research like the Alpha Project will enable us to better understand human biology and cellular function," said J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., president of The Center for the Advancement of Genomics. "It is encouraging to see that the innovative ideas of Dr. Brent and others at the Molecular Sciences Institute are being recognized and awarded significant federal funding to further their crucial research."

The Alpha Project's focus is on the flow and processing of information within cells in a prototypical pathway, the pheromone signal transduction pathway, in a well studied, single cell organism, baker's yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae). Though a simple organism, yeast cells have much in common with cells of more complex organisms, including humans.

By developing and applying innovative experimental and computational approaches to this system, MSI scientists will generate an interactive model of the pathway. The Alpha Project, the research methods and the computer models developed are a pilot study to explore similar pathways in higher organisms.

The key to crafting predictive models will be the development of new research methods and computational tools to probe and analyze complex biological processes. MSI was established to enable and encourage collaboration among scientific disciplines to foster independent thinking and novel approaches so that these new research methods and computational tools will emerge.

Led by Brent at MSI, the Alpha Project brings together 40 independent researchers, faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students from a variety of fields including biology, chemistry, engineering, mathematics, computer science, and physics at the Molecular Sciences Institute, the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of California, Berkeley, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

As an independent, non-profit research laboratory, MSI practices the open publication and release of data, methods, and materials. Similarly, the CGEC's work will be freely shared, so that its scientific achievements and new technologies can be disseminated quickly to scientists worldwide for maximum public benefit.

"We are eager to develop and test an 'open source biology' approach," says Brent. "This means that in appropriate situations we will go beyond the standard scientific practices of open publication and data release, to distribution of materials and technologies under open source licensing schemes." Brent believes that open source licensing of new discoveries may be an effective way to take findings from the Human Genome Project and the Alpha Project and bring about tangible impacts on agriculture, drug discovery, and ultimately, human health.

Founded in 1996 by Sydney Brenner and based in an 8,000-square foot laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., MSI has pioneered the concept of a biology-driven, multidisciplinary research institute attempting to predict the consequences of biological changes. MSI investigators have published scientific publications in journals such as Cell, Nature, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"I'm delighted by this award, which recognizes MSI's contribution to this now rapidly developing field of biology which fuses the experimental with the computational approach," says Sydney Brenner, D.Phil. "It will also allow MSI to develop its work further and enhance its ability to continue to attract young scientists to the field."

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In addition to the new NHGRI funding, MSI is supported by other federal grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and from philanthropic contributions. Further information is available at http://www.molsci.org.

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