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Indiana U s Ted Widlanski on Lilly Endowment s $53 Million Grant

Last week, the University of Indiana announced a $53 million grant from the Lilly Endowment that it will use in a program it is calling the METACyt Initiative, which will fund initiatives in metabolomics and cytomics.

The university said it will use the funds to broaden and intensify its life sciences research, retain scientists, attract new scientists, and fund technology transfer to new and existing life-science businesses.

The grant funds will be focused on metabolomics and cytomics and will target five areas: microbial systems; cell signaling and differentiation; molecular neurosciences; molecular evolutionary and developmental biology; and analytical technology development. Research in these areas is intended to be multidisciplinary and will build on genomic and proteomic research initiatives already in place. Additionally, some of the funding will go toward the construction of facilities such as Simon Hall, a 140,000-square-foot research and teaching facility, and the creation of four Integrating Science and Technology Centers to support investigators by performing biochemical, functional genomics, and computational cytomics analyses, as well as chemical imaging and assaying.

BioCommerce Week this week spoke with Ted Widlanski, associate dean for research at the university’s College of Arts and Sciences, to learn more about how the funds will be spent.

What is the size of scientific investigation at the university?

We have approximately 125 to 150 science faculty, and each one would run between two and four projects, so there may be as many as 400 science projects ongoing on the campus at any one time, just in the college of arts and sciences, with approximately $120 million in grant funding.

How will the $53 million Lilly Endowment funding impact that?

The $53 million is coming in over five years, so one can think of it as approximately $11 million additionally per year. But some of it is going for infrastructure, bricks and mortar, so it is approximately $8 million a year of funding into the life sciences. If you think about the areas we are funding under this project, [they] go from bioanalytical and biochemistry all the way through to evolution and development -- that is, life sciences at the organismal level, which is really the context for what metabolomics and cytomics really are.

How much metabolomics and cytomics are you doing right now?

Quite a bit, but it has never been organized in the way it is right now, to bring people together, which is really what I think is important about this. Having this much money to spend in a coordinated way really makes a huge difference. When scientists get funded, they get funded as individual investigators, so you might have a chemist who is doing something related to metabolomics, you might have a biologist doing something in cytomics, or many of them. But they are, at best, loosely confederated and what you really need is a big chunk of money that allows you to create the infrastructure, pull them all together into one cohesive group, or in this case, nine groups that function within the context of this project. And that gives you an order-of-magnitude jump in what those groups can do. And, to get them to function like that, you really need a big chunk of money to help push the objectives forward.

Certainly metabolomics is early in development.

That is exactly right. We didn’t want to do something that other people had done or were doing. We didn’t do too much of the technology development for sequencing of the human genome; and we played catch-up on proteomics. We have great proteomicists here, but it’s out there. So you want to look for the next wave of technology that you can get a leg up on with the next wave of investment. We looked for things that we would be naturally good at and with the targeted investment, get a huge leg up on everyone else. Metabolomics is exactly the right discipline. We have the right people here to do this, the same thing with cytomics. What we really needed was an investment and a way to tie together people with expertise at the molecular level with people who have expertise at the cellular and the organismal level, but we don’t have a way of tying them together. This initiative allows us to tie all of that expertise together in a really nice way.

How will you support this?

We are going to be putting together a biochemical analysis lab, which will be focused on small molecules, peptides, and small polar molecules, using GC mass spec, HPLC, some mid-level proteomics work looking at peptides, but basically solving problems associated with people coming in from the nodes and saying ‘What’s in this?’ We want to be able to provide those routine kinds of biochemical analyses to people in the biological sciences who just don’t know how to do them fairly well, but to an analytical chemist it’s a fairly straightforward thing to do. The lab will have a service and a teaching function. We haven’t hired a director yet, but certainly there will be mass specs involved.

A new building is going up that will be done in approximately a year and a half. It’s a large building, the idea was to create an environment where people of different disciplines can come together. They will be grouped in specific ways, with shared instrumentation facilities. We need labs for people who are doing all the multi-disciplinary things that got funded.

What are your research goals?

In the proteomics area, one certainly wants to have an understanding of both the proteome and the metabolome. The long-range goal is to have a full molecular understanding of how a cell works, which is what cytomics is all about, and really have an understanding of the components of a cell — metabolomics and proteomics.

What can IU’s contribution can be, realistically, in the next five years of the grant?

I don’t think we should underestimate what our analytical chemists can do. They are really terrific scientists. Now, no one ever fully understands anything, but taking big steps results in big payoffs. So if you get to the level where you can pull out a metabolomic profile, for example, that allows you to tell the difference from a healthy cell and a diseased cell, and for certain number of disease states, that is a huge advance. Or, one important new technology development can spur the growth of a number of companies. We are really looking for the creation of several new companies, at least, over the next couple of years as the result of the technology innovations that are going to come from these groups. There is some money in this for investment in startups but we have some separate plans with people here in Bloomington for separate space for incubator labs.

How did this all come together?

Michael McRobbie [Indiana University vice president for information technology and research] is the person responsible for developing the pervasive computing laboratories, which were born out of a Lilly Endowment grant a number of years ago. He developed a relationship with Lilly based on the strategic investment of funds for technology development. Shortly after Lilly gave a large grant to the medical school, called IGEN, people on this campus started saying to Michael that groups on the Bloomington campus could do things that complement the efforts at the medical school. He, along with scientists on the campus, developed a vision for going to Lilly with a very targeted request for forward-looking technology development, which is what this proposal was. We are not here to do genomics, we are not here to do stuff that people have already done. We are here to try to do something that is very challenging, that is new, that is really at the cutting edge. He saw this proposal and took it to Lilly and did a great job at convincing them that this would be a terrific thing to do for the state of Indiana, for IU Bloomington, for the College of Arts and Sciences, which is by far the largest component to the grant. And, it would also help us establish complementarity with the med school in terms of establishing projects that can move forward in tandem. It went from start to finish very quickly, not much more than a couple of months from pitching the idea to getting the money in hand. I have a copy of the check right here. All those zeros look awfully nice.

What are the university’s responsibilities to the funder?

We have a set of milestones that we sent them. What they really expect us to do, first and foremost, is to do really good science. And, as you would expect, they want us to make more with this money. We think of this an investment in the university, so we have an obligation to invest in ourselves and grow a better university. That has all sorts of implications for the community — like spinning off economic development into the community. It means putting forth a vision of really great sciences that makes a mark on the state, and on the country. And, it means coming up with research technologies that can be translated into economic development. All of that is really important.

Will new academic programs come out of this?

Not right away, but down the road there probably will be some as we start to develop federal centers of excellence. But we have put in place a process that is developing seven or eight new scientific academic programs — a human biology program, new biotechnology program, a PhD in scientific computation, an undergraduate degree program in applied physics, and a materials science PhD. That dovetails into this very nicely. The money won’t go directly to those programs, but it will support the faculty and students who will be involved in teaching and running those programs.

Will you look at systems biology approaches?

We are going to be doing that too. We are doing biocomplexity, that is why we have this tremendous investment in this campus in computational methods. Ultimately, tying the molecular, the organismal, and the computation people together is what is required to do systems biology. That can’t be done by a small entity, it has to be done by a major investment in a large number of groups that can then tie together. Looking down the road, that is what is going to come 10 or 15 years from now.

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