Joe Nadeau is working at the forefront of what might be considered a somewhat old science at Case Western Reserve University, where, according to Nadeau, the term “systems biology” was originally coined at a meeting in 1968. Today, as the chair of the genetics department and co-director of the Center for Computational Genomics and System Biology, he’s helping put in place several initiatives to move systems biology ever closer to medicine.
Nadeau, who has been at Case since 1996 and got his start in genetics at the age of 7 when he spent his allowance on a genetics textbook and tried to catch Drosophila for his own experiments, has seen firsthand the changes in systems biology over the years. “It was easier to do the theoretical aspects than the biological aspects [because] it was data-limited,” he says of systems biology research at Case before genomics and its tidal wave of information. “Now we have the chance to get the large data sets — the special data sets that we need.”
Taking advantage of this, Nadeau has been working on a systems biology effort across several departments at the university. “The environment here is really collaborative,” he says. “There are virtually no walls between the departments, programs, and schools.” The systems biology researchers have teamed up with engineers to develop biosensors that could be implanted in patients to gather continuous data on things like oxygen, glucose, or other chemical levels. Another group is focusing on in vivo imaging technology that would, for example, be able to use gene expression profiles to detect transgenes that have been engineered to report whether a gene is turned on or off.
In another initiative, Nadeau has been key in bringing together the university resources with those of University Hospitals and the Cleveland Clinic for a project designed to advance translational genomic medicine. Using the hospitals’ patient populations, Nadeau says, researchers will attempt to “build a pipeline … from research to the way a patient on a bed is treated.” It’s a matter of fine-tuning coordination, he adds, among “genetic profiles, expression profiles, clinical profiles, patient records, drug testing.”
To that end, Case and its partners are building an as-yet-unnamed center that will receive somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 million to $200 million in the next 10 years from private funding, grants, and other sources, Nadeau says. At press time, a director hadn’t been named, but Nadeau says a number of people have been considered and it’s down to “a very short list.” He says he is not the person to do it — the director will likely have a more clinical background with a better knowledge of pharmaceutical companies than Nadeau, whose PhD is in population biology. “I’m happy [just] building this infrastructure,” he adds.
— Meredith Salisbury