BLACKSBURG, June 28, 2000 - Scientists have described the mapping of the human genome as the biological equivalent of man's landing on the moon. The historic milestone announced Monday has raised hopes that doctors can treat the genetic causes of heart disease, cancer and hundreds of other human disorders.
But before researchers can develop gene-based therapeutic drugs, they first must make sense of the vast body of data generated by two independent research teams. They must analyze specific genes, identify the proteins those genes produce and determine how those proteins function in the body.
Such research requires high-powered computers, sophisticated software and skilled teams of biologists and computer scientists - the kind of ingredients Virginia Tech officials expect to have at a new institute dedicated to genomics research.
Tech will open the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute this fall, a $39 million center established to increase knowledge of plant and animal genomics and develop tools for interpreting other genomics information. Research at the institute will focus primarily on plant and animal genetics. But Clark Tibbetts, the institute's associate director, said Tech researchers also could play a significant role in making human genome information more manageable.
"I see our work here as moving toward taking that next step," Tibbetts said Tuesday.
Tibbetts expects technologies developed at Tech to help scientists around the world better analyze an array of genetic information, including the human genome. Those technologies could include software designed to "better mine" all types of genomics information and computer hardware capable of generating and storing large quantities of data, he said.
"In putting these genome projects to work, we need technology to determine what the real meaning is," said Tibbetts, who has served on the National Institutes of Health Genome Research Resources Committee. Tibbetts came to Tech from George Mason University, where he ran the Institute for Biosciences, Bioinformatics and Biotechnology.
In theory, bioinformatics could produce discoveries that would make the mapping of the human genome a mere "steppingstone," said Stephen Boyle, who supervises the DNA Sequencing Facility at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.
"It's one thing to land on the moon," Boyle said of Monday's announcement. "If you're going to live there, that's the big challenge."
Researchers consider bioinformatics essential for the effective use of genomics information. Many universities, government agencies and pharmaceutical firms around the world have formed bioinformatics groups made up of specialists called "computational biologists" and "bioinformatics computer scientists." Their jobs involve writing computer programs to identify and analyze specific genes and their functions. With that information, scientists hope to develop everything from gene-based drugs to disease-resistant crops.
Tech will receive $11.6 million from the state over the next two years to get its institute started. The university will cover the remaining $27 million in start-up costs, an amount Tech officials expect to recoup with research revenue. Tech President Charles Steger expects total capital and operating investment to approach $100 million within six years.
The university hired Bruno Sobral, a top scientist with the National Center for Genome Resources, earlier this month to run the institute. Sobral arrived in Blacksburg this week to begin planning for the opening of the institute, which will operate this fall out of a temporary facility at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center. Long-range plans call for construction of a building on the Tech campus.
Tech officials hope to recruit top scientists to the institute. Tibbetts said Tech's strengths in biotechnology and information technology can make the university a leader in the emerging science of bioinformatics.
"If there's an area in this institution where we're going to take a leadership role, it's in what we're doing now," Tibbetts said.
June 27, 2000