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INTERVIEW: At the Helm of EBI, Thornton Seeks to Expand Projects, Grow Staff

HINXTON, UK, July 20 – Janet Thornton, who was recently named research director of the European Bioinformatics Institute, said that she would focus on expanding the number and size of the institute’s research groups and doubling its staff to 260 people over the next five years.

“I would like to expand out from our core resources, to integrate the data, and to ask key biological questions,” Thornton said in an interview with GenomeWeb.

She said that she would look to build research groups around public databases, including the Swiss-Prot Annotated Protein Sequence Database, EBI’s ArrayExpress, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory’s Nucleotide Sequence Database, the European Macromolecular Structure Database, and the Protein Structure Database.

By creating these groups, Thornton hopes researchers at the EBI, which recently received a large funding boost, will begin to integrate the disparate data contained in the databases and to generate new scientific questions.

“The key problem at the moment is that if you want to move between resources you need to be quite expert to integrate the gene, disease, mutation, and expression data,” Thornton said. “The EBI will encourage the development of a resource to integrate the five basic databases.”

But Thornton stressed that EBI researchers would do more than develop new tools. Instead, she said that she would encourage scientists to ask novel questions and then to pursue the development of the tools that would help lead to answers.

“I want people to start asking fundamental questions, like how do proteins evolve, how do protein pathways evolve, how do they compare in different organisms,” she said, adding that she is planning to invite research fellows to work at EBI for three-year periods as well as to tie cheminformatics into the projects.

“Because we’re asking questions, we’ll need those tools to answer the questions,” she said.

Thornton, 52, who was previously a structural biology professor at University College London, has focused her own research interests on the modeling of protein structures and rational drug design. Her research is the cornerstone of London-based Inpharmatica’s technology. Last week, Swiss biotech company Serono announced that it had entered a $20 million deal with Inpharmatica to search for novel proteins targets and antibodies.

Thornton, who replaces Michael Ashburner, said she would also keep his Gene Ontology project going and welcomed his ongoing involvement in the project, which seeks to create an overarching language that will allow genomics researchers to communicate in the same language.

“There are 2 to 3 people at the EBI involved in this project and they will continue it,” Thornton said.

In addition to her main goals, Thornton said that she would also like to develop channels for encouraging working relationships between small enterprises and the EBI. Until now, the EBI has used its industry program primarily as a way of encouraging big pharmaceutical companies to fund collaborative projects with the institute.

As for Thornton, she said she decided to stay in the public sector in order to pursue the types of scientific questions that intrigue her without having to worry about the bottom line.

“I like the freedom to follow my nose without the worry as to whether there will be any financial success,” she said.

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