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Institute for Systems Biology Mulls Expansion, Focusing on P4 Efforts

By Alex Philippidis

SEATTLE — Approaching its 10th anniversary, the Institute for Systems Biology envisions a near-doubling of its faculty, and its space here, in coming years while moving ahead on several collaborations designed to advance "predictive, preventive, personalized, and participatory," medicine, ISB Co-founder and President Leroy Hood told GenomeWeb Daily News in an interview last week.

Hood said the institute is considering consolidating its current 65,000-square-foot headquarters at 1441 North 34th St., and a nearby 16,000-square-foot space into a single facility to be located in the city's South Lake Union section.

He said that ISB would try to double the 65,000 square feet of its current headquarters if it proceeds with that consolidation. "My vision is, I'd like to grow us from 12 faculty to 20 or 22 faculty," Hood said in an interview at his office.

"If we're going to do that, we're going to need space to bring in both junior and senior people," he said. "We'll need space for the junior people that are really succeeding. We'll need space to expand the administration that's going to have to deal with these big budget increases as strategic partnerships come in, and grants and contracts."

As for the timeframe of a possible ISB move, Hood said, "I hope it will be on the order of a year, maybe a little longer than a year. But there are a lot of decisions that haven't been made yet, so we'll see."

Those decisions, he said, begin with whether to go ahead with the move at all, let alone where in South Lake Union to relocate, and how the new facility would be developed.

"Moving into a new building requires raising money and convincing the board in these challenging times that a move is appropriate. I think we'll end up doing that," Hood said. "I think ISB's potential earning power, through donations and contributions from philanthropy, is pretty good these days."

This year, Hood said, the institute's fundraising campaign will highlight a recent study by Spain's SCImago Research Group concluding that between 2003-07, ISB research papers had the highest scientific impact in the United States and the third highest among more than 2,000 institutes worldwide. ISB saw more than $12.5 million in non-contractual cash income from private sources during 2008, up $7 million from 2007.

Also over the coming year, Hood said, ISB's budget will rise in the coming year from $40 million to "up to $45 [million] to $48 [million]." While government grants account for the bulk of those revenues, the institute also expects additional cash from donations, as well as collaborations with research partners.

ISB has completed its first year of working with partners on the $200 million series of collaborations launched by Luxembourg, and involving the Translational Genomics Research Institute, or TGen, and the Partnership for Personalized Medicine, which includes TGen as well as the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University.

During the collaboration's first year, Hood said, researchers developed new computational methods "that will allow us to think about biology as an interim patient science." They also submitted a paper to Science about the sequence analysis carried out on the genomes of a family of four with a genetic disease, and they generated "about the order of 25 to 30 organ-specific" blood proteins from the brain, liver, and lungs.

The number of organ-specific proteins "should ramp up very, very significantly" over the next few years, Hood said.

"We just got a [nearly $2.3 million] stimulus grant from NIH, whose orientation over the next two to three years is going to be to create [a Multiple-reaction monitoring] mass spectrometry series of three to five probes for every human protein. That's the scale in which we're trying to think of getting things done over the next few years," Hood added.

Hood disclosed in October that his lab had sequenced the genomes of a mother, father, and two children to uncover three undisclosed candidate genes for two undisclosed Mendelian diseases.

Starting this month and running over the next three to four months, Hood said, the collaboration plans to sequence genomes from 100 individuals from families that have Huntington's disease, with the goal of identifying modifier genes that alter the phenotype.

"And then, after that, we'll probably be looking at doing 500 individual sequences, so we really expect to be up to 1,000 within a year and a half or so," Hood told GWDN.

He said the Luxembourg collaboration has benefited from the savings generated by farming out sequencing and analysis of data to Complete Genomics of Mountain View, Calif., rather than buying its own equipment. Complete Genomics is a startup that has developed its own sequencing technology and will provide sequencing services, rather than sell instruments, when it does its full commercial launch this year.

That cost, according to Hood, who is a member of Complete Genomics' Scientific Advisory Board, would have included "25 to 30 or 35 next-generation DNA sequencers, and they're what these days, $600K a piece? You can do the mathematics. And that doesn't even count about all the software and the storage you'd need to do to handle and manage the raw data and everything. So it's an enormous savings. And all that savings can be put into doing genome sequences."

Complete Genomics "has more than satisfied" the needs of collaboration, Hood added.

"I think they have very high quality data — they've focused really on doing individual human genome sequences, so we're pleased with their work. And they're expanding their factory enormously in terms of throughput," he said. "They have lots and lots of capacity."

P4 Efforts Taking Shape

Also progressing, Hood said, is ISB's collaboration with Ohio State University, announced in October, to develop a P4 Medical Institute. "P4" medicine is the paradigm advanced by ISB and Hood that healthcare must evolve from being reactionary to being "predictive, preventive, personalized, and participatory."

Since October, the P4 Medical Institute has been incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit, he said, and has settled on some basic pilot projects while continuing talks with prospective industrial partners.

"We're thinking about a project where we can use assays for the first time to define, in molecular terms, wellness," Hood said. "I think wellness is a multi-dimensional entity that really has never been defined before. Wellness is usually defined as the absence of disease. We're going to have a positive definition, and it will be defined in the context of individual patients and populations of patients."

The ISB-OSU collaboration will also focus on chronic disease.

"We're still debating which one that would be, but I would guess it would be probably one of the cancers," Hood said. "The idea is to have pilot projects that we can apply these new, very powerful molecular assays to, and provide killer applications showing how transformational these approaches could be."

He said that research is expected to be carried out "probably in six to nine months," though timing will be affected by how quickly OSU approves participating in the collaboration — as well as how quickly corporate partners join ISB and OSU.

The collaboration envisions coming to terms first with a couple of founding companies. "We would ideally like four to six, probably," Hood said.

Another P4 effort resulted in Hood joining with James Heath, a California Institute of Technology chemistry professor, to form Integrated Diagnostics, which raised $30 million in Series A venture capital financing last fall. The company aims to develop tests for monitoring organ-specific proteins that appear in the earliest stages of diseases, using genomic and proteomic technologies and discovery data licensed from ISB.

Integrated Diagnostics is one of five companies created based on technologies developed at ISB. Hood said the institute will continue to press ahead with commercializing its discoveries, despite the recession.

"We had no problem raising money for Integrated Diagnostics. My view is, if you have a good idea for a company, you can get it funded, whatever the economics are out there," Hood said.