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Novartis Research Leader Sees Bioinformatics As Growing Tool in Overall Genomics Efforts

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BASEL--In a recent conversation with BioInform, René Ziegler, head of research information management at Novartis Pharma AG, the biomedical research and development arm of the recently formed life sciences giant Novartis, shared his perspectives on expanding the role of bioinformatics in the company now that the dust is settling from the recent merger of Novartis's predecessors, Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz.

Novartis Pharma will be building up its bioinformatics research and development efforts considerably, Ziegler said, calling the new group at Novartis an "amalgamation" of the separate bioinformatics groups that existed at Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz. "The merger gave us an opportunity," he explained, to increase the strength of the company's bioinformatics operations, which are now consolidated under the helm of Novartis Pharma's Research Information Management.

Although the groups were in the process of being developed prior to the merger, both Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz placed a high priority on genomics efforts. In addition to its in-house genetics and molecular biology research groups, Sandoz owned Genetic Therapy (GTI) and Ciba-Geigy owned 49 percent of Chiron/Viagene, representing interests in genetic therapy and gene delivery.

After the merger of Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy was approved by both the European Union and the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last year, Novartis was formally launched at the end of December as the world's largest life sciences company. Of the 90,000-plus employees, approximately 20 percent are based in the US, including a research campus in Summit, NJ Novartis has maintained its involvement with GTI and Chiron/Viagene following the merger. However, the FTC required the company to provide potential competitors access to licenses for specific patented technologies--gene therapy based on modified herpes simplex vectors, certain cytokines, and Factor VII for hemophilia gene therapy--in order to avoid monopoly concerns.

Recruiting Efforts

Ziegler has been actively involved with building up Novartis's bioinformatics efforts, including recruiting. The most public indication of his work can be observed in full-page advertisements recently placed in the classified sections of Nature and Science for both senior-level and junior postdoctoral positions. Since the bioinformatics talent search is also "a major component" of the effort to expand into functional genomics, Ziegler indicated that it won't be limited exclusively to database designers or molecular biologists. In addition, the ads seem to indicate that he's on the hunt for Ph.D.-trained computer scientists, a scarce commodity in an informatics-hungry job market.

"You can think of bioinformatics as having four elements," Ziegler observed. There are infrastructure requirements, which include the need for hardware, software, and workbench components, as well as laboratory requirements, which include sequencing and annotating operations. Data analysis represents a third element, bringing in the need for algorithm optimization and development. Finally, he said, the fourth element is the integration of bioinformatics data with structural biology.

Together, the four components generate the need for computer scientists (infrastructure), molecular biologists and technical staff (laboratory), statisticians (analysis), and structural biologists and chemists (integration). "We'll be looking at a wide spectrum of skills, obviously," Ziegler commented. He also mentioned that the permanent head of the bioinformatics group has not yet been assigned; in the meantime, Ziegler is serving as acting head.

Ziegler declined to provide details on the current size and estimated growth of the bioinformatics group, but said the group "would be built up a great deal" and would reflect the growth of Novartis's overall genomics efforts. Although he wouldn't divulge the particulars of bioinformatics resource allocation, expansion of the group would necessitate substantially increased funding, which would be consistent with Novartis's publicly declared intention of focusing on the life sciences; in fact, the company has already spun off operations in such noncore areas as specialty chemicals.

Bioinformatics and functional genomics efforts at Novartis Pharma are evolving in parallel, Ziegler noted. "Bioinformatics is a key element of functional genomics, but functional genomics goes far beyond informatics to encompass biological and analytical laboratory work and robotics," he said. The functional genomics effort at Novartis Pharma will be developed separately by Paul Herrling, the company's head of research.

Previous Efforts "Embryonic"

Reflecting on the status of the bioinformatics efforts at Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy prior to the merger, Ziegler found it "almost embryonic, I should say. But now, postmerger, we're heading someplace very different, obviously," he concluded, noting that he wants to avoid Novartis's research efforts being labeled merely as bioinformatics, since this area shares many functional interests with other fields, as well as analytical applications that could be used outside what Ziegler termed the "traditional realm" of bioinformatics.

Although Ziegler is neither a biologist nor a computer scientist, he is well prepared for the task at hand. He earned a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Basel before moving to postdoctoral fellowships at Cornell and the University of California, San Francisco. He then joined Sandoz, where he headed a cardiovascular research group well before the merger with Ciba-Geigy. He served in Sandoz's Core Technologies Group, and, after the merger, was named to head the newly created research information management group.

Asked what he would like to see happening with bioinformatics three to five years down the road, Ziegler responded, "a maturation towards uniqueness." In other words, he explained, "if you don't want to run with the pack--and I don't want to see Novartis in the pack--you have to avoid producing and using generic products and tools." So, he said, "we will want to differentiate ourselves, using unique bioinformatics tools to help enhance the identification of novel therapeutics." He indicated that Novartis planned to pursue the development of bioinformatics software and applications not only in-house, but also in collaboration with academia and external startup companies.

Ziegler seemed convinced of the intrinsic merit of fully integrating bioinformatics into Novartis's operations. "It's impossible not to have bioinformatics, not to integrate bioinformatics in the modern pharmaceutical organization," he concluded.

--Wendy Yee

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