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Genomics and Proteomics Find Home in BioDefense

BALTIMORE, March 11 - Genomics and proteomics may have lost some of their luster on Wall Street in recent months, but on

Aliceanna Street
here at the American Society for Microbiology Biodefense conference these subdisciplines have found a home. Along with several presentations, a good 20 percent of the posters presented applications of large-scale gene and protein analysis to understanding of pathogens and how to combat them.


Many researchers have pinned their hopes on using proteomics and DNA microarray technologies for rapidly detecting the presence of potential pathogens. Nancy Valentine, a scientist in the environmental technology division of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, described in a poster how her group is applying MALDI (matrix-assisted laser desorption ionization) mass spectrometry to identify various pathogenic bacteria.


Valentine's group was able to accurately identify the bacteria even when the organisms were grown under disparate conditions, but she said using mass spectrometry to detect an airborne pathogen will require more sensitive technology. Getting an accurate identification still requires waiting for enough of the pathogen to accumulate, she said.


Other proteomics practioners are hoping to aid in the search for new vaccines to protect against bioterror agents. At the University of California, Irvine, Luis Villareal is leading an effort to develop a broadly applicable strategy for expressing the entire proteomes of pathogenic viruses, starting with smallpox. Villareal and his group at UC Irvine's Center for Virus Research are employing an in vitro technique, gene activation by PCR, to express viral proteins in a 96-well format. With sufficient funding to purchase the oligonucleotide reagents, he said the technology is capable of expressing 2,000 proteins a week. Villareal plans to array the proteins on slides to allow other researchers to then develop antibodies against them for use as potential vaccines.


Scientists are also tying their more basic research in genomics and proteomics to biodefense. In separate posters, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory described their analysis of the genomes of Francisella tularensis (responsible for typhoid fever) genome, and Brucella abortus (responsible for undulant fever). In a presentation, Michel Desjardins, of the University of Montreal and Caprion Pharmaceuticals, described his success in using proteomics to identify a previously uncharacterized process by which the human body fights infectious disease. Insight into the mechanism, he said, should help researchers develop treatments for diseases ranging from salmonella to tuberculosis.


There are certainly funds for researchers hoping to try out additional technologies. For fiscal year 2003, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has earmarked between $25 million and $30 million for genome sequencing alone, and an additional $14 million to $20 million for functional genomics and other unsolicited proposals. In 2004, total spending on genomics will jump to $100 million, according to the NIAID budget office.

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