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The Laboratory In Situ

The Institute for Systems Biology may or may not represent the acme of what the architectural future of biological investigation should be. But, it does seem to be an inviting place to conduct the leading-edge scientific investigation that is the institution’s reason for existence.

Located on the North shore of Lake Union in Seattle and near to a growing number of biotechnology enterprises and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, ISB is architected with open work spaces and lots of sunlight. The wet labs and the scientists get a view of the picturesque lakefront, while administrators — even ISB’s president and founder, Lee Hood — get a view of the street. Visitor parking is available in the basement.

The 64,000-square-foot three-story building is four years old and was originally designed as an office building but was rehabilitated for ISB’s needs for wet labs and to hold a cross-disciplinary group of biologists, computer scientists, chemists, engineers, mathematicians, and physicists, which now numbers some 170 employees. ISB is divided into eight faculty and research groups. Fueling the scientific investigation are on-site core labs for genotyping, gene-expression, proteomics, and cell sorting, and a supercomputer is tucked into the usual climate-controlled, glassed-in room.

Krassen Dimitrov is the director of the DNA microarray laboratory at ISB; Marta Janer is the director of the genotyping lab; Lee Rowen manages the sequencing lab; and Dan Martin runs the proteomics facility.

The genotyping facility runs on a Sequenom MassArray unit chosen because it can run 7,500 complex genotypes per day. The lab checks 300 SNPs in “a lot of people,” Janer said.

The proteomics facility utilizes three mass spec machines and has a run time per sample of between 90 to 180 minutes, Martin said. The three machines have three full-time operators.

“It is isn’t that we have the best computing facilities in the world, but we have very, very good computing facilities and we may have one of the best proteomics facilities in the world, but our array facilities are no better than any others,” Lee Hood told BioCommerce Week. “But what I think what is singular and unique is our integration of biology and technology and computation. I think there are no other organizations that do it as effectively.”

The institute is focused on investigating three types of biological problems, Hood said.

One is using Halobacterium and yeast as model organisms as a foundation for a systems approach; the second is applying systems approaches to cancer; and the third is understanding the immune system.

On the third floor is the laboratory’s technology development space. There, an undergraduate student pecks out a string of characters on a keyboard, and nearby, a robot comes alive, making a clicking and whirring noise as the student chuckles.

The robot is a part of an ink-jet-powered oligonucleotide printer for 1x3-inch microarrays, a new system being designed in the Stanford/Pat Brown mode of home-brew arraying. The arrayer is estimated to cost somewhere around $60,000 to build and will probably be ready for distribution at around the time that microarrays move away from 1x3 slides, joked Steve Lasky, the head of the institution’s technology development, as well as director of Hood’s lab since 1996.

But the institute is not limited to this space. A short drive away is the building that houses more lab space under the Accelerator Corp., an ISB-affiliated enterprise founded in 2003 with $15 million in funding to develop startup companies.

The Accelerator houses two early-stage ventures in its 20,000-square-foot lab and office-space facilities — VieVax and VLST. The founders of VLST, which was incorporated in May, Craig Smith and Steven Wiley, came out of the development effort that produced Enbrel, the arthritis drug.

Wiley told BioCommerce Week that being in a relationship with the Accelerator brought with it the benefit of access to ISB.

“We aren’t doing systems biology, but we can leverage their systems for our purposes,” he said. “We can interface with them and have a good association with them, as well as have an extension of our lab,” he said. “The idea behind the Accelerator, we have bought into.”

— Mo Krochmal ([email protected])

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