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PENCE to End; Canadian Protein Research Network to Morph Into Viral Consortium

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After 15 years of promoting networking and collaborations among Canadian protein and proteomics researchers, the Protein Engineering Network of the Centres of Excellence's administration will be dismantled in the fall, as mandated by its funding organization, the Canadian Network Centers of Excellence.

"The deal was that after 15 years, we would become self-sufficient, and that after that there would be no more funds available for the administration of the network," explained Lorin Charlton, a member of the PENCE administrative team.

The NCE has funded 11-15 scientific networks since it was established in 1990 as part of the Canadian federal government's strategy to promote health and biotechnology by encouraging networks among geographically disparate researchers. Each of the NCE networks can be funded for a maximum of three rounds, with each round lasting about 5 years. PENCE was funded for the maximum number of NCE network years, Charlton noted.

With funding for PENCE research terminated March 31, and with existing funding to end Sept. 30, numerous steps have been taken to encourage scientists who have come together through the PENCE network to continue collaborating with each other.

"The ending of PENCE is a major issue, even though we've known its coming," said Jeremy Carver, the board chair of PENCE. "Even though the investigators are allowed to carry over PENCE money from year to year, it's a rare scientist that plans financially for the future."

Carver and other PENCE members have managed to secure about $100,000 from various funding agencies to be used for travel funds for young investigators, such as grad students and postdocs.

"We want to at least provide travel money for younger investigators to visit each other's labs," said Carver. "We want to continue the training programs that have been established so that graduate students and postdocs can learn a technique in someone else's lab and bring it back to their own lab."

Most of the approximately 120 PENCE principal investigators have multiple funding sources for their research projects, and plan to continue the research collaborations that they started under PENCE, Charlton said.

"The scientists are very committed to carrying on collaborations they started with PENCE," said Charlton. "Many of them say that the biggest advantage to being in PENCE is the networking opportunities."

During its early days, much of the PENCE funding went into building core research facilities, Charlton said. Later, a number of PENCE principal investigators got together to apply for a grant from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, which was set up to provide funds for research infrastructure, such as core facilities. After a CFI grant was secured, much of the PENCE funding went towards collaborative projects.

During its third round of NCE funding, PENCE started the Canadian Proteomics Initiative, an annual conference to bring together protein chemists, protein engineers, structural biologists, mass spectroscopists and computational biologists from across Canada and other countries.

CPI 2005, which was held last week at the University of Toronto, was the last CPI conference sponsored by PENCE. In future years, CPI will be sponsored by a number of other organizations, including the Canadian Society of Biochemistry, Molecular and Cellular Biology, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research's Institute of Genetics, the Canadian Proteomics Society, and the Human Proteome Organization Canada (see HUPO story).

Anticipating the end of PENCE funding, members of the network began brainstorming two years ago for ideas on what PENCE might morph into after its funding ends. They eventually came up with the idea of establishing an International Consortium for Antivirals — a non-profit company that will work on finding vaccines and therapeutics for various viral diseases, including SARS, West Nile virus, influenza, and AIDS.

Two international meetings have already been held on ICAV. The first meeting, sponsored by PENCE, was held in Toronto in June 2004. The second meeting, sponsored by the Pasteur Institute in France, was held in Paris in March. The third ICAV meeting is expected to take place Sept. 23-25 at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.

According to Carver, the co-CEO of ICAV, the impetus for ICAV came from the outbreak of SARS in Toronto in 2003, which quickly led to PENCE's funding of eight SARS research projects. The SARS investigators realized that a number of the SARS virus platforms could be applied to other viruses as well. That led to the establishment of the ICAV platform, which aims to target human functions essential for viral infectivity.

"The theory is that if you interfere with the host enzymes that are being hijacked by viruses, such as convertases, and you can produce an anti-viral that blocks that interaction between the host enzyme and the virus, then you should be able to make a vaccine that works for a variety of viruses, with much more longevity," Charlton, the secretary of ICAV, explained.

Currently, most vaccines target a specific viral protein, instead of targeting the host protein, Charlton said. Because viruses mutate so quickly, many vaccines are not effective for very long because viruses develop mutations that allow them to overcome the effects of the vaccine.

"Targeting the host should have more longevity," Charlton said.

Aside from Carver and Charlton, other leaders of ICAV include Ralf Altmeyer, the co-CEO and scientific director of the company, and Michel Chretien, the director of international partnerships and networking.

So far there are about 100 scientists in ICAV, about a quarter of whom are members of PENCE, Charlton said.

Carver said the ICAV is looking to secure $8 million in funding every year for seven years from a variety of sources. The company has already secured $1 million per year for five years from the Ontario government.

"There's a lot of interest in ICAV," said Carver. "We should have enough money by September to launch the company."

— Tien Shun Lee ([email protected])

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