U of T researcher part of a new $6.5 million centre to study how cells are wired
National Resource for Network Biology will provide better tools for studying biological systems
Toronto, November 3, 2010: Professor Gary Bader, PhD, Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research at the University of Toronto, is part of a team of six world-renowned network biology experts to open up a new centre called the National Resource for Network Biology (NRNB). The NRNB will help researchers and clinicians analyze an ever-growing wealth of complex biological data and apply that knowledge to real problems and diseases.
Network Biology is the science of creating and analyzing maps of how a system fits together. Network maps help us to understand the relationships among all parts and how they come together and work as a system to achieve a common goal. Network biology helps us understand how cells work and how contagious diseases spread through our social networks.
In recent years, the study of biological networks has exploded, with scientists shifting much of their focus from single cells to complex systems, producing novel maps of interactive networks of genes and proteins that help define and describe a functioning human being. But the exponential growth in data has created a new challenge: How do you effectively use it?
“The NRNB is part of the answer,” says Trey Ideker, PhD, associate professor of bioengineering at UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering, chief of the Division of Genetics at the School of Medicine and principal investigator of the new centre. The NRNB is funded by a five-year, $6.5 million grant from the National Institute of Health’s National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), and the only centre of its type to be funded this year.
“Ten years ago, the Human Genome Project was a huge achievement. It listed for the first time all of the 25,000 or so genes in a human being,” says Ideker. “But it didn’t – and doesn’t – really tell us how those genes work together. For that you need another ‘omics data set: the interactome.”
An “interactome” describes all of the molecular interactions within cells. For the past decade, a grassroots effort called Cytoscape, developed by Ideker, Bader and their colleagues, has provided biologists with the beginnings of one: an online, open-source, evolving platform that describes and visualizes complex molecular interactions and biological pathways. See http://www.cytoscape.org/
“But this gathering of basic data has generally outpaced efforts to practically apply it,” says Alexander Pico, PhD, bioinformatics group leader at Gladstone Institutes and executive director of the NRNB.
“The field of network biology is at a very interesting stage,” Pico says. “We are sitting on loads of measurement data, with new technologies continuously expanding, and we are just beginning to put these ‘parts lists’ into comprehensive biological systems.”
With support from the NIH, the new centre will provide qualified researchers with access to more and better tools for conducting advanced studies of biological systems that result in sophisticated models of how human systems function or fail. All of this will ultimately lead to new and improved treatments and therapies, such as identifying disease biomarkers and molecular targets for potential drugs, defining genetic risk factors and deciphering how individual or group lifestyles (social networks) affect the development and transmission of disease.
“We are unique in having a balanced mix of software developers and bench biologists who know how to communicate with each other and with the greater community,” says Pico. “We have been building and using the core toolset of NRNB for many years and we’ve made a regular practice of training others – establishing collaborations that drive development along the most fruitful and effective routes.”
Like its subject, the NRNB is the product of extensive interaction, with multiple collaborators. They include James Fowler, a UCSD professor in the School of Medicine and Division of Social Sciences who specializes in social networks; Chris Sander of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York; Bruce Conklin of the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease in San Francisco, Gary Bader of the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research at the University of Toronto and Benno Schwikowski of Institut Pasteur in France. Olga Brazhnik of the NCRR is program officer.
NCRR biomedical technology centres serve a specific purpose in NIH-funded research. They provide critical and often unique technological and intellectual resources to scientists, emphasizing service and training for outside investigators.
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