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Director of New UBC Center Has Big Plans For Future Canadian Bioinformatics Research

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Francis Ouellette is a busy man, and he just got busier. Already the director of the bioinformatics core facility at the University of British Columbia’s Center for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics and director of the Canadian Gen-etic Diseases Network, Ouellette can now add a new title to his list: Director of the UBC Bioinformatics Center, a new facility that he said he hopes to make the “Mecca of bioinformatics in Canada.”

Ouellette, who also serves as a co-developer of the BIND database and runs the Canadian Bioinformatics Workshop series in his spare time, couldn’t be happier about the additional workload. Grinning broadly, Ouellette told BioInform that he’s excited to have the opportunity to build a bioinformatics research center from scratch. Ouellette and the eight faculty members who currently work on his CMMT team will be joined by four new hires -- two focused on biomedical research and two with backgrounds in computational science or statistics. The group will have around 5,000 square feet of space “within a few months” within the university’s current biotechnology lab, but there is a possibility that the center will relocate to a new 11,000 square foot building under construction next to the biotech lab that is expected to be completed in 18 months.

The group will use the machine room available at the CMMT core facility for the foreseeable future, but Ouellette said he hopes to secure funding to ramp up the center’s hardware resources to include a compute farm.

Ouellette said he’s keeping his options open in terms of the center’s research direction. “There will be no focus apart from bioinformatics,” he said, noting that everything from microarray analysis to proteomics to statistical approaches would fall under the umbrella of the center’s activities. However, he does envision supporting a three-pronged strategy: basic research into new bioinformatics methods, support and training for users of bioinformatics tools, and large-scale projects centered around database and software development. The latter category, Ouellette explained, would scale up the tools developed under the basic research component to work in high-throughput environments.

Just over a month into his new appointment at UBC, Ouellette is already neck-deep in plans for his next activity. He’s coordinating a national organization of bioinformatics researchers called the Canadian Bioinformatics Integration Network (www.cbin.org). The group has submitted a letter of intent for Canada’s highly competitive Network Center of Excellence program, which would provide C$5 million ($3.14 million) in funding over a seven-year period. A board of directors and scientific advisory board, chaired by Tim O’Reilly and Lincoln Stein, respectively, have been put in place already, and Ouellette said the group is prepared to work together whether the NCE funding comes through or not. The odds aren’t good — out of 53 applications, the NCE will only select two projects —but Ouellette was optimistic about the group’s chances.

If the effort does get off the ground, it will have the additional challenge of fulfilling the NCE requirement of creating spin-off companies based on the technology developed by the network of researchers. Acknowledging that “few bioinformatics companies have made it on a standard model,” Ouellette added, “we’ll just have to find an alternative model that works.” And if the rest of the investigators in the network keep as busy as Ouellette does, they may have a pretty good shot at it.

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