The Institute for Advanced Study — a fruitful haven for some of the top theoreticians of the twentieth century — has set its sights on one of the twenty-first century’s most challenging research areas. The IAS recently recruited Arnold Levine to head up a new Center for Systems Biology that will apply the institute’s expertise in mathematics and physics to the complexities of molecular biology.
But the institute doesn’t plan to blaze the systems biology trail on its own. On the contrary, Levine said he sees IAS as the hub of a regional systems biology research network that includes a wealth of academic centers, hospitals, pharmaceutical firms, and corporate R&D facilities located in central New Jersey.
“Over the next five years, central Jersey will become one of the centers for systems biology in the United States, and possibly the world,” Levine said last week during a symposium that IAS hosted on its idyllic Princeton, NJ, campus. The conference drew around 30 participants from Princeton University, Rutgers University, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Siemens Corporate Research, and several nearby pharmaceutical and biotech firms, who shared the fruits of their systems biology research efforts. It was one of a series of weekly seminars, workshops, and symposia that the center has hosted since December as part of an aggressive outreach program to attract potential collaborators and partners. IAS — which is fully equipped with its own living quarters, dining hall, and research facilities — welcomes the opportunity to serve as “host” for the region’s systems biology party, Levine said. “Guests can be put up here, we have great food, and plenty of parking” — a good-natured jab at neighboring institutions like Princeton and Rutgers, where parking is notoriously scarce.
Levine — who discovered the p53 tumor suppressor gene and served as president of Rockefeller University until 2002 — joined IAS as a visiting professor in the School of Natural Sciences last year. The institute is closely associated with its neighbor, Princeton University, where Levine served as head of the molecular biology department for 14 years before moving to Rockefeller. In an arrangement that suits the institute’s collaborative approach to systems biology, Levine has a joint appointment at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey, where he oversees an experimental research team of about five people.
The IAS Center for Systems Biology has no wet lab facilities — and no plans for any, Levine said — so his IAS and Cancer Institute teams have a symbiotic relationship in which the IAS team analyzes data supplied by the Cancer Institute team. The two groups, which Levine refers to as the “theory group” and the “experimental group,” meet face-to-face every week or so, he said. “I’m the guy in the middle,” he said. “I have to make the marriage between the theorists and the experimentalists work.”
The decision to forego a wet lab is understandable, considering the institute’s formidable reputation in mathematics, computer science, and physics: Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, and Robert Oppenheimer are only a few of numerous legends among former faculty members. Levine, whose IAS mailbox is next to physicist Freeman Dyson’s, said that the institute plans to build upon this theoretical foundation in its approach to biology. He is currently the only “pure” biologist among the center’s five faculty members. The team includes a mathematician, two physicists, and a computational chemist. In addition, the group includes three visiting members: a physicist and computer scientist from IBM, a mathematician, and a theoretical biologist.
Physicists have accumulated decades of knowledge on how to extract knowledge from large data sets, Levine said, so the onslaught of biological data from the Human Genome Project and other large-scale biology efforts made it clear that “the time had come [for IAS] to step into the biological sciences.” The institute first launched a broad program in theoretical biology in 1998, which was led by Martin Nowak. With Levine’s appointment last year, the name was changed to the Center for Systems Biology to better reflect his expertise in molecular biology, although the “theoretical” component of the IAS approach is likely to remain intact. Levine said that one goal of the center is to gain a better understanding of “what theorists can do that will be the most productive for biology.” Finding an answer to that question, he added, is likely to be “a struggle,” but a rewarding one.
The center recently installed a 48-processor computer from IBM — a gift from Big Blue valued at around $750,000, Levine said. IAS is also “committed to expanding” the systems biology effort, he said, and plans to hire one or two more faculty members in the next few years.
In addition, Levine is solidifying relationships between IAS and its neighboring institutions to foster the regional systems biology network. His team is working closely with researchers from Princeton’s new Lewis-Sigler Institute of Integrated Genomics, Rutgers’ BioMaPS (Biological, Mathematical, and Physical Sciences) Institute for Quantitative Biology, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey/Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, as well as Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck, and GlaxoSmithKline. IAS, Princeton, Rutgers, and UMDNJ have also applied for a joint NIH grant to fund a more formal collaborative systems biology relationship, he said. The grant — which Levine suspects is the first NIH grant that IAS has ever been involved with — “may be a long shot,” but the regional systems biology effort is likely to carry on with or without the award, he said. Funding would help “solidify the structure that we’ve built,” he said, but central New Jersey’s systems biology population is certain to grow: In addition to the IAS center’s expansion plans, the Lewis-Sigler Institute is still seeking faculty, Rutgers’ BioMaPS initiative is expanding, and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey is building a new facility. The region, Levine said, is approaching the “critical mass” required to establish itself as a systems biology hotbed, with IAS at its core.