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Ontario Institute for Cancer Research Expands to Support Medicinal Chemistry, Informatics Programs

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The Ontario Institute for Cancer Research is expanding within Toronto's MaRS Discovery District, where it is headquartered, to accommodate growth in its informatics and medicinal chemistry programs.

OICR has moved into a new server room that will house $4 million in equipment for its Informatics and Bio-Computing Platform. The new server room, on the ground floor of the MaRS Centre, will allow the institute to double its data storage capacity from 1.5 to 3 petabytes. The equipment includes about 1,800 additional cores for high-performance computing, and 32 additional research server hosts.

Tom Hudson, OICR's president and scientific director, told GenomeWeb Daily News today the capacity expansion is designed to address a need for more space to store data being gathered by the International Cancer Genome Consortium, whose data coordination center is at OICR.

"Because of that responsibility, we also need to increase our storage space, and our compute space," Hudson said.

ICGR — a consortium of 10 countries, the UK and the European Union — aims to sequence more than 25,000 tumors from 50 different cancer types at the genomic, epigenomic, and transcriptomic levels.

Lincoln Stein, the director of OICR's Informatics and Bio-Computing Platform, and his team of about 10 scientists have spent the past two years creating a "franchise" database model to allow the collection and auditing of data produced by participating genome centers in ICGR, as well as a portal, launched live on Thursday, to allow access to the data, Hudson said.

In a paper published in Nature, the consortium detailed the data available through the database. It includes initial data releases from ICGC members for breast cancer (UK), liver cancer (Japan), and pancreatic cancer (Australia and Canada) — and this week OICR released data on two genomes for pancreatic cancer, Hudson said. In a statement earlier this week, the consortium said that funding has been committed to studying more than 10,000 cancer tumor genomes for the blood and organs that include the brain, breast, colon, kidney, liver, lung, pancreas, stomach, oral cavity, and ovary.

The informatics and bio-computing platform supports research initiatives that include the OICR Cancer Genome Program, and the Ontario Health Study, a 20-year cohort study of 150,000 healthy residents of the province. The study is designed to gather information researchers expect will better explain how genetic factors, environment, and behavior affect human health long-term.

The new server room and med-chem lab were originally planned to be located in part of the two floors that OICR planned to lease at the $300 million, 20-story tower that would have comprised MaRS' second phase. Developer Alexandria Real Estate Equities broke ground on the 770,000-square-foot project early in 2008, but halted work in November of that year, citing the recession, and has not announced any date for resuming construction.

Now the institute will build the new med-chem lab in 2,000 square feet of new lab space, on the third floor of the south tower of MaRS Centre, to be used for an expansion of its medicinal chemistry platform. The new space was taken from a portion of the space set aside by MaRS for incubating startup companies.

"OICR has some very active projects right now in med-chem, and we made a case [with the MaRS district] that we needed the med-chem facility to move these projects along," Hudson said.

The new med-chem space follows OICR's decision to grow that program, the reason behind its recent recruitment of Pradip Majumder as a PI. He previously worked as a scientist at Merck and before that as an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School at Dana Farber Cancer Institute.

"We recruited him because we needed to start a biology team associated with med-chem, and he has a lot of experience in that area," Hudson told GWDN. "We probably are thinking that there are going to be about, probably 15 FTEs. Positions have, or are close to being, filled for five or six already."

The roughly 15 FTEs are in addition to the more than 40 people Hudson and OICR have anticipated hiring during 2010 at the institute's research hub. The hub — where the institute has centralized its genomics, informatics, and medicinal chemistry research operations — houses about 40 percent of OICR's total staff of about 500 people. The remaining 60 percent work at clinical trial sites and other research centers throughout Ontario, including in Ottawa, London, and Kingston.

Hudson said most of the new staffers to be hired this year will work in informatics and on the genetic epidemiology team, which will see a new PI, Lyle Palmer, arrive with his research team from Australia. Palmer, director of the Centre for Genetic Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Western Australia, will lead the Ontario Health Study.

The new server room and med-chem lab are two of three expansions OICR has undertaken in recent months. Last year, the institute began moving informatics staffers into about 10,000 square feet of temporary leased office space one block east of the hub, at 790 Bay St.

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