With a short trip across town, Alan Aderem and his team are bringing their expertise in systems biology to the study of global infectious disease. Aderem, a co-founder of the Institute of Systems Biology in Seattle, announced in March that he is joining the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, where he will serve as president. Ken Stuart, the founder and now-president emeritus of SBRI, says that he and Aderem have long had similar research interests.
With decreases in cost and the development of new approaches — especially in informatics — systems biology is primed to power the study of infectious diseases, Stuart says. He recalls turning to Aderem a few years ago to ask for help in studying leishmania. Stuart wanted to understand the interactions between the parasite and the macrophages it takes over. "What we wanted to do is to explore the dynamic interaction of this pathogen in the host. At that time, the technologies — both the measure technologies and computational technologies — really didn't have the scale to deal with that complex interaction," he says.
Now, as Aderem points out, the field has been moving faster than Moore's law, and there are more — and more refined — tools. He points to advances in sequencing as well as in proteomics as enabling technologies. Multiple reaction monitoring, he says, allows researchers to measure hundreds of proteins at a time, and could be used in vaccine research. "There are numerous examples of technologies having matured, having become cheaper, having become much more accurate, being more robust," he says. "And all those things have now allowed us to approach these very complicated problems."
Aderem's group has been studying emerging infectious diseases, just as Stuart's Seattle Biomedical Research Institute does. The two teams have the same goal, but now they're using a new way — a systems biology way — of doing things. "We still have the same mission, the same goal ... and the goal here is really disease prevention and disease alleviation," Stuart says. The institute's current focus is on vaccine development for HIV and malaria as well as drug discovery for tuberculosis and emerging infectious diseases. With this expansion, they will be folding in work on influenza and Dengue fever that Aderem's group initiated. "The programs that are going on here will be stimulated by the bringing-in of the new technologies and approaches and the new scientific perspectives," Stuart says, adding that now this will all be housed in the same place.
The team Aderem is bringing over is an interdisciplinary one, and even includes an astrophysicist. "Ken's point about putting them all under one roof is that that facilitates really creative interaction between people, which happens casually rather than in a directed way," Aderem says. "Here, you run into a person at the water cooler."