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Big Pharma: Planned Novartis Center Brings New Life to Boston


Got a resumé and an allergy to the West Coast? Might want to start packing for Boston. Novartis’ announcement that it would invest $250 million in a new center based in nearby Cambridge, Mass., as a hub for worldwide research spurred hope in job seekers with the news that most of the 400-plus scientists there will be “new recruits,” according to the company.

“I expect that some people will come from other [Novartis] research centers, but not that many,” says Paul Herrling, head of corporate research. “The great majority of people who will be working in this area will be new recruits.”

The Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research will be centered in a 255,000-square-foot, wet-lab-ready facility on Kendall Square at MIT and is slated to open in the first quarter of 2003. Mark Fishman, a cardiology researcher and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who is known for his work in functional genomics and zebrafish, will serve as the center’s president.

Early plans indicate that the center will invest heavily in proteomics and bioinformatics, in particular for targets focusing on diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and infectious diseases. Dalia Cohen, global head of functional genomics for Novartis, says, “There are several plans to expand [Novartis’] functional genomics capacity in Cambridge,” and that proteomics would clearly be an important part of the new facility’s mission. She has yet to make specific decisions about proteomics staffing or equipment purchase, though the Cambridge facility will rely on GeneProt’s new New Jersey operation for high-throughput protein analysis.

Another key push will be in bioinformatics, signaled largely through the 60 to 100 bio- and chem-informaticists Novartis expects to hire for the center, according to Herrling. The informatics efforts will be led by Manuel Pietsch, a cofounder of the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics and head of research information management at Novartis.

Herrling says the opportunity to build the facility from scratch has provided a chance to rethink the role of bioinformatics within the discovery process. “We will see skills like bioinformatics being rolled out throughout the research organization,” he says. Rather than isolating bioinformatics employees as a concentrated group, Herr-ling says the discovery research process at the center would include bioinformatics staff as “full team members” within the project teams on particular disease areas.

Having the informatics people all over should be a boon to the resource-intensive center. Herrling says it will need “big-time” compute power for planned projects in modeling protein structures, protein-protein interactions, and signaling pathways. Bids have already come in from a number of companies, and Novartis plans to continue its established partnership with Compugen for at least some of its bioinformatics needs.

— Adrienne Burke and Bernadette Toner


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