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PGx to Play Central Role in New Genomics Institute Created by MIT/Whitehead, Harvard

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MIT, Harvard, and the Whitehead Institute have created a new institute, called the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Institute, which aims at using pharmacogenomics technologies to bridge the gap between the human genome project and clinical medicine.

Given this goal of taking genomics to the clinic, pharmacogenomics disciplines, especially SNP-genotyping and gene-expression, will play a central role in research at the Broad institute, according to a faculty member.

SNP-genotyping and gene-expression studies “are absolutely going to be central approaches,” said David Altshuler, director of the Medical and Population Genetics program at the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research. Altshuler has been appointed one of five core faculty members at the new facility. “We recognize the tools are obviously going to need be improved,” he added.

The Broad — which rhymes with ‘code’ — expects to open its doors later this year in the Kendall Square area of Cambridge, and hopes to raise up to $200 million in federal grants and private support over the next 10 years. It will get going with a $100,000, 10-year gift from Los Angeles philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad.

Eric Lander, founder and director of the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research, and a member of the MIT Center for Cancer Research, will be director of The Broad Institute.

Though it’s still some way from outlining the details of the research it plans to foster, the institute has the goal of developing “tools for genomic medicine,” to “make them broadly available to scientists around the world,” and to “pioneer applications of these tools to the study of disease, in order to propel the understanding, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of disease.”

The institute researchers plan to use the tools to “understand the molecular basis of broad aspects of medicine, such as cancer; metabolic disorders, including diabetes, obe-sity and heart disease; and inflammatory and infectious diseases.

“Work will range from research on basic models related to disease mechanisms to the collection and molecular analysis of clinical materials, employing the toolkit for genomic medicine to take global views of biological systems,” the partners said in a statement issued last week.

According to Altshuler, any tools that are developed at the new center may be commercialized. In fact, he said the institute’s leadership has already talked about this issue with an undisclosed number of pharmaceutical and biotech-nology companies. “It’s clear that certain things are advanced most rapidly into the public interest when they are commercialized by for-profit comps, and there’s certainly no conflict between those two ideas,” said Altshuler. “There’s nothing wrong with that; I think it’s a good thing.”

However, Altshuler stressed that the institute intends for all data that originate at the institute to be publicly available.

The institute intends to “complement” existing research efforts at other labs by becoming a “catalyst and nucleus” for broader collaborations “that cannot readily be accomplished in the traditional setting of individual academic laboratories.”

Two examples of the kinds of collaborations the Broad Institute intends to foster, Altshuler said, are with the SNP Consortium and the HapMap Project. “Hopefully … we’ll be able to expand the range of these projects by involving more people from the [life sciences] community,” he said.

The Broad Institute will comprise individual research labs as well as larger, “team-based” programs that will develop and employ genomic tools. It will conduct research ranging from basic biology to clinical medicine, and will have at its disposal computational scientists, chemists, and engineers.

“An important aspect of the Broad Institute’s work will be computational biology, which is increasingly central in converting the explosion in biological information into useful biomedical knowledge,” the partners said.

Eventually, the institute expects to employ 12 core faculty members and around 30 associated faculty members from MIT, Harvard, and the Whitehead. According to the partners, the core faculty will be appointed on a “long-term basis” and will “lead major programs” within the institute. Associated faculty will be appointed on a rotating basis.

The initial core faculty will include: Eric Lander, director; Altshuler; Stuart Schreiber, chair and professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator; and Todd Golub, associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, associate investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and director of the cancer genomics program at the Whitehead. Additional core faculty will be added over time. The Broad Institute expects at least 15 associated faculty members to be appointed before it is launched later this year.

“The creation of the Broad Institute builds on the increasingly numerous and successful inter-disciplinary and inter-institutional collaborations in our community,” said Joseph B. Martin, dean of the Harvard Faculty of Medicine. “It is this type of synergy among our various faculty that will accelerate the transition of the genomic revolution into medical practice.”

According to Altshuler, since the institute is still several months from being finalized — he said the space is intended to open in the fall — there haven’t yet been any details about which kinds of platforms it will used for specific projects. “Those decision will obviously flow, as the technology changes, from the interests of the people who work here,” he said.

— KL

 

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