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For NIGMS Head Marvin Cassman, Spectacular Potential of QB3 Drives Urge to Lead It

SAN FRANCISCO, Feb. 11 - Beginning in May, the new multi-discipline Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research at the University of California, San Francisco, will have its first director.

 

Marvin Cassman, who agreed to give up a revered posting as director of the National Institute of General Medical Science, in Bethesda, Md., to run the place, known as QB3, is charged with the challenge: "I think the potential is spectacular," he said.

 

QB3 is one of four new California Institutes for Science and Innovation announced late last year by Gov. Gray Davis. Each institute is slated to receive $100 million from the state to cover capital costs over four years, with additional funds raised privately, according to state officials.

 

The other three institutes will address telecommunications, nanosystems, and information technology, and will be headquartered at different universities within the University of California system.

 

QB3 will be headquartered at UCSF's new Mission Bay campus, currently under construction, and will bring together researchers at UCSF, UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Cruz who will apply physical, mathematical, and engineering disciplines to study certain biological problems, according to UCSF.

 

"Most of the biology in the last century has been driven by chemistry, and most recently by genetics [in order] to identify molecules involved and visualize them, to understand their chemistry and function," said Cassman, whose appointment still awaits UC Board of Regents' approval. "Going from the chemistry to looking at networks of interaction requires computational tools and engineers. We want to move from where we are now where information is pouring out in bucket loads to move to real-time understanding of what's moving around in the cells, how the cells interact with their environment."

 

Cassman said he will miss his old job, which required him to work with what amounted roughly 12 percent of all National Institutes of Health grants, or $1.73 billion in fiscal 2002.

 

"I've been in this position for almost nine years," said Cassman, who was named acting director of NIGMS in 1993 and director in 1996. "You never finish everything, there's always more to do. But this was a new opportunity."

 

Cassman said he views his new position as a continuation of moving research toward systems biology, which he said the NIGMS began funding four years ago.

 

"There is a lot of enthusiasm for this [QB3] program," he said. "You start with big plans, a willingness to try and do it. It will be my job to translate this into something positive.

 

"I don't have to start by convincing [the researchers]," added Cassman. "I have to make sure they don't get discouraged."

 

Another goal is making sure everyone can work together, a possible uphill battle when dealing with outsized egos and disciplining fiefdoms at one university, let alone three, said Cassman.

 

"There are people at all the campuses with talent in all of the areas, including bioinformatics and computational biology and in chemistry, biology, and on the structural side," he said, adding that he looks forward to facilitating alliances with private industry and healthcare institutions. "One of the goals of the [QB3] is to maximize the capability of these people to collaborate, to get more than the sum of these parts. I don't pretend this will be easy."

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