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Research Triangle Institute Moves into Bioinformatics, Snags NIAID as First Client

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Independent non-profit research organization Research Triangle Institute, known for its expertise in chemistry, survey methodology, and statistical analysis, has added bioinformatics to its repertoire.

This fall, RTI hired Jamie Cuticchia for the newly created position of director of bioinformatics. Cuticchia, most recently director of the GDB Human Genome Database at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, joined the organization with the mission of “genomically enabling” RTI to win genomic-based government contracts.

The first such win, a contract with the NIH National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is just getting underway. RTI won a $1.4 million grant from the NIH-NIAID to build a bioinformatics integration support architecture for NIAID researchers. Phase I of the contract began at the end of September. RTI and Northrop Grumman IT, which also won a $1.4 million Phase I grant for the project, will each deliver a proof of concept to the NIH-NIAID in 18 months, competing bake-off style for the second phase of the grant, which will run through 2010.

An NIH spokeswoman was unable to comment on the Institute’s rationale for choosing RTI and Northrop Grumman — two bioinformatics newcomers — to build the integration system, especially when there are so many commercial vendors who specialize in bioinformatics integration. Cuticchia noted, however, that the NIH “made it very clear that they don’t want a commercial off-the-shelf solution. … They want a systems integration approach of people that are going to look at this problem from a five- to ten-year perspective, look at the ontologies that are out there right now, and see how one can really build something extensible that can make it through the long haul.”

Northrop Grumman declined to comment on its involvement in the project.

RTI will develop some proprietary tools for the architecture, but is partnering with IBM to use its DiscoveryLink integration middleware, and is partnering with SAS to use its technology as well, Cuticchia said.

Cuticchia is just beginning to staff the bioinformatics team, but has over 250 RTI computer scientists at his disposal in the meantime. “What I found intriguing is [RTI has] a pretty strong chemistry group, a pretty strong computer science group, and is located in a very hot area in terms of biotech,” Cuticchia said. In addition to its government contracts, RTI has commercial clients, partners with local universities, and spins off businesses when appropriate.

The goal of the bioinformatics group, Cuticchia said, is to make the most of these available resources “to create a very powerful bioinformatics company inside a very well respected contract research organization.”

While the bioinformatics group at RTI is still in its early days, Cuticchia has already decided on an area of specialization: “What I see as our niche is [that] we’re going to deal with issues in human genetic variation,” he said.

— BT

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