NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Less than a year after surpassing 300 employees, the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute will be "shooting for 400" in the new year by expanding its work in immunology and systems biology, as well as continuing its research programs in malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, and neglected trypanosomatid diseases, President and Director Ken Stuart told GenomeWeb Daily News this week.
"Those are the two areas that we think are important to expand into, rather than starting to go into respiratory diseases or diarrheal diseases. We don't have the intent to go there. We think that that would spread us too thin," Stuart said Wednesday during a wide-ranging interview at GenomeWeb's New York City offices.
"We're fortunate that the Institute for Systems Biology is right on the other side of [Seattle's] Lake [Union], and we collaborate with them on some projects," added Stuart, who co-founded SBRI in 1976. "We want to take advantage of a lot of the technologies in informatics that they've developed. So we're not going to build a systems biology institute, and we're not going to build an immunology institute."
Instead, Stuart said, he envisions SBRI working on the biology to complement ISB's systems biology research: "We've talked with them about how we can study the pathway between the Leishmaniasis pathogen or TB and the macrophage — two interacting genetic systems, and how are they influencing each other.
"When we first talked with them, which was a couple of years ago, their technology really wasn't developed enough to accommodate that," Stuart said. "That's changing now, because their systems are more robust. Their technology is one of the best at computation … everything [they have now] is better. So it's more timely now."
In addition, SBRI will develop a software suite designed to help research consortia manage data for numerous projects. That effort is likely to need "probably a couple of FTEs over a few years," namely informatics professionals, Stuart said.
He predicted SBRI will not find it easy to hire those people, since grant funding agencies traditionally don't fund them.
"What we're trying to do is to create a platform where they can be aware of what their colleagues are doing, or have already done, but maybe they haven't published [the results], or they're planning to do so and have [publication] in process. And then, to also be aware of the results of some studies where a target has been found not to be valid, or a series of compounds has been abandoned for some reason, and typically these are not published, but it's important to know that, to create a framework that people can use to make decisions," Stuart said
The platform, he said, would feature databases not just on potential targets for new drugs, but on compounds, with information on which have shown promise and which haven't. With help from a Microsoft volunteer a SharePoint site has been created that will link to databases for the genomes, proteomes, and targets that could be used in new drugs.
"Part of this is not just, what's the project? How do you make a vaccine? But, how do you work within the community? And how do you help the community to succeed, which helps you succeed," Stuart said.
SBRI is headquarters for one of its research communities, the Seattle Structural Genomics Center for Infectious Disease, which is led by Peter Myler, a principal investigator with the institute. SSGCID — which includes the University of Washington, Battelle, and Emerald BioStructures [formerly deCODE biostructures] — was established in late 2007 with a $30.6 million, five-year contract from NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
SBRI also partners with global health nonprofit PATH in the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative, or MVI. Using a $2.3 million grant from MVI, SBRI researchers are assessing the vaccine potential of malaria antigens from some two dozen candidates, and are in the early stages of testing them in animal model systems.
Early in 2010, SBRI researchers led by principal investigator Stefan Kappe expect to start the clinical trial process for a new genetically attenuated whole-organism malaria vaccine candidate against the deadliest form of the disease, Plasmodium falciparum.
"We think it's going to be a very effective vaccine, but one that's not cheap to produce or not easy to — I wouldn't say that's its impossible — but ultimately we'll be able to use these clinical trials also to do exploration, understand the basis for immunity, and therefore identify what will be vaccine candidates that will be easier to produce, some recombinant proteins, and that would be more scalable, easier to produce, over – and so on. But that's going to be down the road," Stuart said.
Working with the nonprofit foundation Medicines for Malaria Venture, Kappe and another SBRI researcher, Malcolm Gardner also plan at about the same time another trial on drugs designed to treat malaria by blocking parasites in the first stage in the liver.
Also on the malaria front, SBRI is recruiting an investigator to succeed Patrick Duffy, who headed the institute's malaria program until his appointment to chief of NIAID's Laboratory of Malaria Immunology and Vaccinology. Duffy will continue to devote 25 percent of his time to research programs at SBRI, Stuart said.
"He played a leadership role in the malaria program, so we want a senior person in that position," Stuart said.