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New Head of NCGR Bioinformatics Group Says Collaborations Will Be Top Priority

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Geert Wenes may seem an unlikely candidate to head bioinformatics at the National Center for Genome Resources: The struggling non-profit will offer more challenges than perks for the veteran of Cray Research and IBM’s life sciences division. But the recently appointed program leader for NCGR’s bioinformatics department said the easy-going pace of the non-commercial outfit was a main attraction.

“Work done at NCGR has a nice time horizon,” Wenes said. “It’s not driven by corporate development, but it’s not as open-ended as academic research.” In addition, the “added responsibility” of expanding the center’s existing collaborations appealed to the more business-like side of his nature, he said.

Like many of its commercial counterparts in the bioinformatics world, NCGR has had its share of troubles. Three permanent and two interim CEOs have come and gone since 1997, and a noncompete agreement that accompanied the sale of NCGR spinoff Molecular Informatics to PE in 1997 prohibited the center from developing tools for human genome analysis for three years.

But things are looking up. Wenes’ appointment comes as part of a reorganization of the center’s resources: its activities will now be split between the bioinformatics group, which he will run, and a computational systems biology group, as of now lacking a director.

“It’s a very classic R&D split,” said Wenes of the more research-oriented computational biology group and his development-focused bioinformatics team of around 17. The systems biology group will act as “an internal customer base” for Wenes’ group, which will be developing the software and tools to help the research go forward.

Aside from keeping the center in the black, Wenes said that his biggest hurdle might be overcoming the “great cultural affinity” that exists between computational science, math, and biology. “The greatest challenge is putting biology’s point on the triangle closer to the other two.” Wenes intends to bridge that gap by ramping up NCGR’s affiliations with clinical research groups working in molecular biology. While NCGR’s staff already has “a critical mass” in software development capability, Wenes said that closer ties to the biological community would be crucial to keeping its tools relevant and useful.

NCGR has a research collaboration signed with the University of New Mexico’s Health Sciences Center and proposals filed with the DOE’s Genomes to Life program as well as a number of national labs, Wenes said. In addition, he plans to extend NCGR beyond plant genomics and applied agricultural sciences and become “more active in the human and microbial world.”

Wenes is also evaluating some ideas to expand NCGR’s bioinformatics and database offerings, including a “new and exciting database technology,” natural language processing tools, and a common integration and development platform that may be based on NCGR’s current Isys system.

— BT

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