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Three New Research Centers Boost Bioinformatics Efforts in Geneva


GENEVA--Glaxo Wellcome Experimental Research, a new center for bioinformatics, opened its doors here on March 6. It is one of three new developments that have altered the mood for the region's biomedical scientists.

Last October, Glaxo sent shock waves through the biomedical research community here when it announced, without warning, that it would shut down the Geneva Biomedical Research Institute (GBRI) by April and retain only a handful of the 140 scientists housed there. The pharmaceutical giant, which had begun developing molecular biology capabilities at its UK and US facilities since purchasing GBRI from Biogen in 1987, said the institute's work had become redundant.

Researchers inside and out of the well-regarded research center were dismayed. A biochemist at Geneva's University Medical Center told Science magazine in October that the closure would be "a disaster for the region's intellectual and technological standing."

But recent developments should put such fears to rest. Just weeks after the Glaxo announcement, Swiss pharmaceutical company Ares-Serono entered negotiations to buy GBRI and retain its remaining 100-plus staff. Scientists breathed a sigh of relief and carried on work in the 7,000-square-meter facility with hardly a change, one researcher who weathered the transition told BioInform. GBRI became Serono Pharmaceutical Research Institute (SPRI) January 1.

Then, on March 6, Glaxo executives showed up next door to celebrate the opening of Glaxo Wellcome Experimental Research. The site is a temporary facility for seven former GBRI bioinformatics staff who accepted a Glaxo retainment offer. Under the direction of Manuel Peitsch, also formerly of GBRI and now Glaxo's worldwide director for science computing, the group will conduct experiments in image filing and storage.

Finally, in coming weeks, the new government-funded Swiss Institute for Bioinformatics (SIB)--a collaborative effort of five area bioinformatics experts, including Peitsch--will set up shop at the University of Geneva and launch five separate bioinformatics initiatives. Peitsch's group will move to the campus in coming months, according to Glaxo Corporate Reputation Manager Philip Connolly.

Purchase gives boost to Ares portfolio

The GBRI purchase is a "win-win" for Ares and former GBRI scientists, Ares Vice-President of Communications Christophe Lamps said.

Researchers, several of whom sources said turned down offers to stay with Glaxo, will continue working in their fields of expertise. "The main focus of our research in terms of diseases will be immunology and central nervous system, with a bit of work supporting the franchises of growth and wasting," said Tim Wells, who headed GBRI's biochemistry department and is now SPRI's director.

Wells said the shift for the former GBRI staff will not be in science, but in philosophy: "The major change will be that we will provide the organization with small molecules and proteins to take into development. We are setting up the chemistry on a relatively small scale here to provide hits to leads functions to back up our existing screening efforts," Wells told BioInform.

The purchase will "leapfrog ahead by five years" Ares's portfolio of state-of-the-art technologies in molecular biology and genomics, Lamps said. Ares will utilize SPRI to extend its efforts in neurology and immune disorders, and to tackle neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. It plans to focus on the mechanisms of reducing apoptosis and brain inflammation, as well as nerve regeneration, according to Lamps.

Lamps said that the expertise of the SPRI staff compliments Ares's strengths: Ares traditionally focused on proteins and hormones, while GBRI fostered a strength in small-molecule development.

Despite the loss of Peitsch and other bioinformatics staff to Glaxo, the SPRI acquisition is a boost to Ares's bioinformatics growth. Lamps said SPRI's advanced robotics and structural biology know-how will be key to Ares's bioinformatics and high-throughput screening capabilities.

Wells said he is still assessing his bioinformatics staffing requirements. "There is a clear need to hire informatics people, although how many and what type is another question," said Wells. "The bioinformatics group here played a major role in Glaxo Wellcome internationally, whereas the group for Serono is servicing a much smaller company," he added.

Friendly neighbors

Wells said, given the institute's location here, he hopes to build strong links with the existing bioinformatics community. He won't have to go far.

Next door at the Glaxo Wellcome Experimental Research site, Peitsch's bioinformatics group will be researching image filing and storage, Glaxo spokesman Philip Connolly told BioInform.

The group's mandate includes focusing on protein structure computing, starting a theoretical protein model database, and furthering the development of quantitative visualization, said Peitsch.

In his new capacity as worldwide computing director, Peitsch will also serve as a liaison among Glaxo bioinformatics groups in Stevenage, UK, and Research Triangle Park, NC, keeping up communications and averting redundancies, according to Connolly. Within the year Peitsch said he will hire an additional five staff.

As for the former GBRI staff now employed by Ares, Connolly said Glaxo is "fairly relaxed" about whatever knowledge has been imparted through the transition. The GBRI scientists "weren't going to stop research," Connolly said. "And they published widely anyway. We clearly have kept our intellectual property."

Nor does Glaxo seem concerned about sharing the brainpower of its new experimental research team with a new public bioinformatics effort, the Swiss Institute for Bioinformatics, of which Peitsch is a founder. With financial backing from local government and university representatives interested in leveraging the region's bioinformatics capabilities, Peitsch and four other Geneva-area bioinformatics experts will establish the SIB in coming weeks.

Connolly said Glaxo is not contributing funds directly to establish the SIB. But Peitsch's group will eventually relocate to the University of Geneva to work more closely and share information with the SIB. His group will serve as an interface between academia and industry, Peitsch told BioInform.

"It's a whole environment where people are very open," Connolly said. Admitting that arrangements might be "tricky," Connolly said some of the experimental research group's products would remain proprietary.

SIB's other founders, who will each direct departments focused on their areas of expertise, are Amos Bairoch, of the University of Geneva, known for developing SWISS-PROT and its associated databases and servers; Ron Appel, of the University Hospital of Geneva, developer of image analysis software in proteomics and of the ExPASy Web server; Philip Bucher, of the Swiss Institute for Cancer Research in Lausanne, who develops the Eucariotic Promoter database and algorithms in sequence analysis; and Victor Jongeneel, of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research and the University of Lausanne, who heads the Swiss node of the EMBnet.

Future funding is expected to come from granting licenses for SIB innovations to a commercial arm, Geneva Bioinformatics (GeneBio), which two of the SIB founders had already established here in November. SIB expects to acquire a headcount of 60 by year's end. To fill those positions, there suddenly seems to be a lot of competition here.

--Adrienne Burke and Vicki Brower

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