In an effort to consolidate data and analysis tools for biodefense and infectious disease research, NIAID awarded $79 million this summer to create six Bioinformatics Research Centers across the US. The centers, according to Valentina Di Francesco, bioinformatics program director in NIAID’s division of microbiology and infectious diseases, will design and maintain relational databases containing information on genome sequence, gene expression, genome polymorphisms, host/pathogen interactions, pathways, and protein expression data related to the 40 to 50 organisms NIAID has designated as Category A, B, and C pathogens.
While NIAID hasn’t specified how each of the groups of awardees should accomplish this goal, Di Francesco says the various groups, which include researchers from The Institute for Genomics Research, the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, among others, are encouraged to work together to develop data ontologies and standards for data exchange. And despite the potentially sensitive biodefense research that the BRCs will enable, Di Francesco says the centers will manage only public data, and thus “will be completely open access to everybody.”
One of the five-year contract grants will go to a group of researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and SRA International, a Fairfax, Va.-based IT contractor for federal agencies. SRA has already worked with NIH researchers to develop microarray analysis and data integration tools, says Tim Cooke, SRA’s vice president and director for health systems. Together with biologists at UW, the team will make the bioinformatics tools available for application to data associated with the pathogens Yersinia pestis, diarrheagenic E. coli, Yersinia enterocolitica, Shigella, and Salmonella, he says.
The bioinformatics funding follows a parallel effort that NIAID has underway in proteomics. In early July the agency awarded more than $54 million for five biodefense-related proteomics contracts, and plans to award two more contracts under the same program. The main goal of that research program, according to the RFP, is to use proteomic technologies to study pathogens deemed important for biodefense or ones that cause re-emerging diseases, as well as host cells, with the aim of finding targets for new vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics.
— John S. MacNeil