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NIAID Awards More than $54 Million for Biodefense-Related Proteomics

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The US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has awarded five contracts for biodefense-related proteomics, worth more than $54 million in total, and plans to add two additional contracts, ProteoMonitor has learned.

At the end of June, the NIAID awarded four contracts for up to five years under an RFP entitled “Biodefense Proteomics Research Programs: Identifying Targets for Therapeutic Interventions Using Proteomic Technology.” The awardees are Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University, which is receiving $10.92 million; Myriad Genetics, receiving $14.21 million; the Regents of the University of Michigan, receiving $5.97 million; and the Scripps Research Institute, receiving $14.3 million. In addition, a group headed by Dick Smith at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in collaboration with the Oregon Health Sciences University, and a group headed by Harvard University are also hoping to obtain awards through the program.

Another contract, under a separate RFP and worth $8.74 million, to establish an administrative center for the program, was awarded this month to Social & Scientific Systems of Silver Spring, Md.

The awards can be found at www.niaid.nih.gov/contract/fy2003.htm.

The main goal of the research program, according to the RFP (NIH-NIAID-DMID-BAA-03-38), is to use proteomic technologies to study pathogens deemed important for biodefense or ones that cause re-emerging diseases, as well as host cells, with the aim of finding targets for new vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics.

The RFP can be found at www.niaid.nih.gov/contract/archive2003.htm. According to the RFP, the NIAID expected to award five to ten contracts around September of 2003. The institute did not respond to requests for comment on why the awards were delayed for almost one year.

Myriad Genetics, the only company to win a research contract, will analyze human-pathogen protein interactions using its high-throughput yeast two-hybrid platform, according to Karen Heichman, the company’s vice president of proteomic research. Myriad will focus on three bacteria and one virus, including Clostridium botulinum, which causes botulism, and Francisella tularensis, which causes tularemia.

Initially, Myriad will screen every protein from each pathogen against a library of human proteins derived from different tissues, mostly immune cells. The goal in this first, random round is to achieve five- to ten-fold coverage of the proteome. In a second screening round, the company will focus on a number of interesting proteins, making five to ten fragments for each protein to study their interactions with human proteins in more detail. “Those, possibly, are proteins that are involved in modulating the immune response or would be good therapeutic targets,” Heichman said.

Four academic subcontractors, each an expert in one of the four organisms, will then validate the data biologically.

Myriad will retain the rights to commercialize the targets it discovers for diagnostic or therapeutic uses. Prolexys Pharmaceuticals, formerly Myriad Proteomics, is not involved in the contract.

Heichman believes the main reason why NIAID chose Myriad as a contractor is its long-standing experience with the yeast two-hybrid technology and its pitfalls. Moreover, the company has a track record of collaborations with other government agencies, academic groups, and companies.

In addition, she said, yeast two-hybrid is a fast and relatively inexpensive way to survey protein-protein interactions. The contract work will also benefit Myriad’s in-house research, providing its pharmaceutical and diagnostic divisions with novel targets. “[It] fits in very nicely with Myriad’s therapeutic interest, specifically in virology but also other infectious diseases,” Heichman said.

The data coming out of the six research centers the NIAID eventually plans to fund will be made available through an administrative center, to be established by Social & Scientific Systems in collaboration with Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and Georgetown University.

Their team will develop and maintain a publicly accessible web site containing data and technology protocols generated by each contractor. Moreover, it will establish a scientific advisory committee and organize meetings.

The NIAID, through its press office, would not reveal the names of the leaders for the other contracts. However, ProteoMonitor has learned that George Orr, a professor in the department of molecular pharmacology at Albert Einstein, leads the project there. Ruth Angeletti, who heads the proteomics core at Einstein, is a co-principal investigator.

The project at the University of Michigan is led by Phil Hanna, a professor of microbiology and immunology. John Yates’s group at Scripps is a subcontractor.

— JK

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