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Virginia Supports Bioinformatics Initiatives At State Universities, Launches Consortium

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In a bid to attract high-tech businesses to Virginia and help the state’s universities compete for research grants, Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore last week pledged $7 million to support bioinformatics and genomics initiatives at the state’s research universities.

The grants came as part of a total award of $18 million under the state’s Commonwealth Technology Research Fund, which Gilmore created last year. The fund currently has $13 million in seed money designed to leverage additional funds for matching grants.

The governor pledged $2.5 million over three years to support collaborative research in bioinformatics at Virginia Tech’s Department of Computer Science and the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute.

Dennis Kafura, head of Virginia Tech’s computer science department, said the funding would be used to purchase high-performance computing equipment for the VBI, which Sun Microsystems recently named a Sun Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics. As such, the state funding will be combined with cost sharing from Sun to provide the equipment.

Kafura said the state funding would also go toward hiring five additional computer science faculty members who would collaborate closely with the VBI to support bioinformatics research. Virginia Tech’s computer science department is currently collaborating with the VBI on a cell cycle modeling project and a management system for microarrays.

In addition to the collaborative research grant, Gilmore awarded a one-year grant of $1.5 million to create the Virginia Bioinformatics Consortium, comprising researchers from George Mason University, the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Virginia Tech.

The consortium will work toward building an infrastructure to allow the universities to work with the same equipment and data standards. Jeffrey Plank, assistant vice president for research and public service at UVA, said the first year would be spent “pooling complementary strengths” between the four universities to develop a framework that could then be scaled up to undertake collaboration with industry.

While the grant is only for one year, Ann Armstrong, president of the state’s Center for Innovative Technology, said it is expected that additional proposals for grants from other sources would follow. The initial award is “seed money to get the group of universities working together,” Armstrong said.

Details on which tool and equipment vendors the consortium was considering as its primary suppliers were not immediately available. However, Armstrong said that Affymetrix, Sun, Gene Logic, and Protogene were among the industry partners involved in the state’s bioinformatics initiatives.

The consortium plans to sponsor several workshops throughout the year to foster collaboration between the universities and the state’s economic development programs as well as national and local biotech companies. Workshops will address topics such as bioinformatics education, drug discovery, and management of bioinformatics data.

“We hope that a year from now we will have demonstrated to ourselves and to industry that the four industries can configure complementary resources and have a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts,” said Plank. “If we can demonstrate this I think we will have demonstrated that the state is well on its way to tackling some of the opportunities that come from the mapping of human genome.”

In addition to the bioinformatics funding, Governor Gilmore also awarded $3 million over three years to fund cancer genomics and the development of diagnostic tools and therapies at Virginia Commonwealth University, George Mason University, and Inova Health Systems. This program will address four different cancers: brain, breast, ovarian, and leukemia. Participating researchers will collaborate on a shared database for diagnosis.

— BT

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