BLACKSBURG, May 11, 2002 - In Tech's Corporate Research Center, a somewhat different model of university research is unfolding at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute. Bruno Sobral, the Institute's Director, flipped through brightly colored computer images of genetic data as he explained PathPort, a new initiative that attracted $4.5 million from the U.S. Department of Defense for the first of what is anticipated to be a five-year project.
Though the bioinformatics institute does the untangling of genes that would produce the images on Sobral's screen, PathPort, which is short for Pathogen Portal, isn't about that kind of basic science. Instead, Sobral's team is writing a computer program to let scientists access data from already-completed studies.
A dozen or so programmers are working on what Sobral calls an "Esperanto for genome data" that would let researchers link databases to ferret out interactions between disease-causing organisms, their victims and the environment. The system will retrieve information from computers around the globe, giving warning of the patterns that lead to an outbreak, for example, or showing possibilities for cures based on previously unnoticed genetic similarities between plant, animal and human pathogens.
"We may find out there are certain relationships that are used over and over and over again. And if we find that out, there may be certain Achilles' heels we can exploit," Sobral said.
Serious interest in the project didn't pick up until after last year's anthrax attacks, which highlighted the problems of scattering disease information among scores of agencies.
Now the bioinformatics institute is consulting with researchers at the National Institutes of Health, IBM, Sun Microsystems and elsewhere. A draft version of the program is due Sept. 1. Then there will be another round of visits to the dozens of organizations that Sobral hopes will use PathPort.
It's an arduous schedule, but one made somewhat easier by the fact that only one of the bioinformatics institute's eight researchers teaches a class. Sobral said he and another institute researcher hope to also teach next year.
May 10, 2002