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Hill Models Activity with Digital Cell

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It’s not that Colin Hill doesn’t want to finish his PhD. He just got waylaid somewhere between working on his thesis and completing the doctorate.

Hill, whose background is in theoretical physics, started working with Stuart Kauffman at the Santa Fe Institute after completing his undergrad years at Virginia Tech. There, he was plunged into the biological applications of what he knew, working especially with genetic regulatory networks. He earned his master’s at McGill in Montreal and then in 1997 enrolled at Cornell University for his PhD in physics. But during his first year there, he again became interested in the problems of gene regulation. “That’s when it sort of dawned on me that all of the DNA chip technologies … really would require math models and computer models that could actually predict these gene expression patterns,” he recalls.

As part of his thesis, he developed the digital cell — a platform “designed to model the cell at the biochemical level,” Hill explains. Theoretically, it can show virtually any activity that goes on in cells, from protein-protein interactions to binding to steps of transcription and translation. Using this as a base, he jump-started Gene Network Sciences, an Ithaca, NY-based company of which he’s the president and CEO.

GNS aims to identify novel drug targets and analyze existing drugs through superior in silico modeling. Using kinetic parameters that he believes are widely unknown in addition to sophisticated algorithms and artificial intelligence methods, Hill and his group of more than a dozen full-time people contend they’re attacking the problem better than anyone else. Traditional discovery won’t get the job done, Hill says. “We don’t believe the answer will be arrived at by trial and error.”

The company is preparing to release BiCluster, software for analyzing correlations in gene expression patterns.

Based on where the next major investing comes from, Hill expects the company to move to Seattle or Boston within a year. Meanwhile, he’s trying to finish up his degree by the spring, but playing CEO sucks up most of his time. “I’m ragged tired every day,” he says, “but I’m always excited to come into work.” Maybe because work is at least a break from that looming doctorate?

— Meredith Salisbury

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