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Bristol-Myers Squibb Goal of Doubling Research Output Will Boost Bioinformatics


PRINCETON, NJ--Bristol-Myers Squibb here will be beefing up its bioinformatics department as part of an ambitious effort to double the company's new drug output in five years, but the company's research culture may change in the process. "We are ramping up our genomics department and are actively recruiting to fill a lot openings," confirmed Wes Cosand, the company's director of genomics technology.

The informatics expansion comes amidst a major growth push by the pharmaceutical maker. At a meeting of Wall Street analysts last month, company executives announced plans to double the number of new drugs entering the development pipeline to 30 per year by 2003, and boost final product launches to three per year over the same period. To support the effort, Squibb intends to double the number of scientists working on drug discovery to 2,000 and expand alliances with other companies and research institutions. "We are committed to grow our core strengths in discovery, development, new technology, and external alliances," Peter Ringrose, president of Squibb's Pharma ceutical Research Institute, told the analysts. Ringrose recently came to Squibb from Pfizer, where he was also in research management.

He said he plans to replace the almost academic culture that has existed in many of Squibb's research units with one more geared toward bringing new drugs to market. Among the new features is a pay-for-performance reward system for senior research managers, according to Ringrose. Other changes include closing a Seattle laboratory that included bioinformatics staff, hiring a new head of cancer research, and establishing research units in several new areas.

Squibb has already begun its expansion, last month naming Elliott Sigal, an electrical engineer, physician, and former lead executive at the Mercator pharmaceutical company, as vice-president in charge of a new 70-person applied genomics department that includes a bioinformatics unit, along with molecular biology, molecular genetics, and proteomics divisions. While Squibb officials declined to specify how many bioinformatics professionals they will hire, Cosand said the company will be "advertising heavily" beginning early this year and it "is interested in hearing from scientists who want work with us. We are looking for bioinformaticists with a real interest in human biology and disease," he told BioInform. Mean while, all the company's current bioinformatics efforts will be concentrated in the new group, which was formed in April.

The ambitious plans call for bioinformatics expertise to be woven tightly into drug discovery efforts. According to Cosand, "computational biology has no value to our corporation until some biologist does an experiment based on that work. So our goal is to integrate bioinformatics closely with biology and make sure it reflects the primary goal of developing therapeutics. Bioinformatics should meet the needs of the therapeutic areas, rather than develop a number of hits that are then sold to the therapeutic side." In an effort to ensure close cooperation, he said, Squibb will "put our bioinformaticists right next to biologists interested in therapeutic issues."

So far, the fierce competition for experienced informatics professionals has not prevented Squibb from acquiring expertise, Cosand related. "People with the right skills are available, the problem has been getting the right match for our needs," he explained. Like many in industry, however, Cosand worried that the growing exodus of informatics experts from academia to the private sector "is like eating our own seed corn. We are recruiting the people that would otherwise be training the next generation," he conceded.

For the moment, however, boosting bioinformatics should help the company in at least two places along the drug development pipeline. First, Cosand noted, "we hope to do a better job of choosing new drug targets. We already have compounds in the pipeline that are a result of thinking about genomics and doing that kind of science." In particular, he added, the growing number of bacteria and fungi that have had their genomes completely sequenced provide fertile opportunities to develop new antibiotics. Dan Davison, a principal scientist in Squibb's Walling ford, Conn., labs, remarked that about 15 bacterial and fungal genomes are already in the public domain, with another 30-35 in privately-held databases. Squibb has access to some of the private genomes through a license to use PathoGenome, the proprietary microbial sequence database compiled by Genome Therapeutics.

Second, Squibb is "placing a heavy emphasis on genomics further along the pipeline, in clinical development," Cosand continued. "It should help us decide at an earlier stage if a compound is going to be a success or not," he said, noting that such early warning should save the company significant time and money.

In an effort to develop genomics technologies and get an inside track on new discoveries, Squibb has formed a number of alliances. In April the company announced it was backing a research consortium that unites the Whitehead Insti tute/MIT Center for Genome Research, Affymetrix, and Millen nium Pharmaceuticals. The multiyear effort is devoted to advancing gene-based computer tools and techniques that will "benefit not only us but the entire research community worldwide," Ringrose said at the time. The company also allied itself with Incyte Pharma ceuticals in March, gaining access to a rapidly expanding database of human cDNA sequences and informatics software. In part, the alliances reflect Squibb's philosophy of "buy it instead of build it," Cosand confided. "We are in the business of finding new drugs, not developing computer infrastructure," he told BioInform.

That philosophy has prompted Squibb researcher David George to spearhead the company's strong support for ongoing efforts to develop industry-wide standards for an Interface Definition Lan guage (IDL), which will make it easier to share genomic data and software objects. "We would very much like to see industry standards rapidly developed," Cosand observed. "One of our big concerns is how to put appropriate, effective, and easy-to-use tools on the desktops of molecular biologists."

Currently, the company's scientists use Silicon Graphics Origin 2000 servers and desktop computers equipped with a mix of off-the-shelf and customized software. Squibb may soon be buying more equipment, however: it recently acquired a former Mobil Oil 450-acre research facility near here, which Cosand called "an ideal place to grow our drug discovery efforts."

--David Malakoff

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