It may be lean times for employees of bioinformatics software firms, but a new biomedical research center that Novartis plans to open in Cambridge, Mass., in early 2003 is proof that there’s still demand for bioinformaticists within pharma.
Novartis expects to hire around 400 researchers to man the Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research Inc. (NIBRI), of whom between 60 and 100 will be bio- and chem-informaticists, according to Paul Herrling, head of Novartis Research. The informatics efforts at the center will be led by Manuel Pietsch, a co-founder of the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics and head of research information management at Novartis.
Mark Fishman, a cardiology researcher and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, will serve as president of NIBRI. Fishman is known for his work in functional genomics, particularly the use of the zebrafish as a model organism. His appointment highlights the mission of the new center, which, according to Herrling, will rely heavily on functional genomics to discover and validate targets related to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and infectious diseases.
Based in Basel, Switzerland, Novartis has earmarked an initial $250 million investment in NIBRI, which will serve as its worldwide research headquarters. The company has leased 255,000 square feet of wet-lab-ready buildings on Kendall Square from MIT and has plans to expand this site even further.
Herrling, who will soon assume the role of head of corporate research at Novartis, said the company is still working out the details of its bioinformatics staffing and technology requirements, but noted that the opportunity of building the facility from scratch has provided the chance to rethink the role of bioinformatics within the discovery process.
While the company’s more established research centers in Basel and La Jolla, Calif., deploy bioinformatics resources through centralized departments, Herrling said NIBRI would take a more holistic approach. “We will see skills like bioinformatics being rolled out throughout the research organization,” he said. Rather than isolating bioinformatics employees as a concentrated group, Herrling said the discovery research process at NIBRI would include bioinformatics staff as “full team members” within the project teams working on particular disease areas.
Herrling said the center would likely rely a bit on its own in-house bioinformatics tools, but also plans to draw upon a partnership it established in August 2001 with Compugen for use of its LEADS computational biology platform.
While its standing contract with Novartis should be a boon for Compugen’s business as NIBRI gets rolling, a Compugen spokeswoman declined to comment on any details of its work at the center.
Compugen won’t be the only vendor to benefit from the new center’s technology demands. While declining to speculate on the specifics of its computational requirements, Herrling said the center would need “big-time” compute power for planned projects in modeling protein structures, protein-protein interactions, and signaling pathways and has already had bids from a number of vendors.
Novartis is considering distributed computing across its desktop network as one of its computational options. The company has already installed United Devices’ distributed computing software on 1,000 desktop machines [BioInform 03-25-02], although plans for expanding that to NIBRI are not definite.