Institute for Systems Biology, UW Researchers Win Bulk of $68M Grants To Study Flu, SARS

10/9/08Follow @xconomy

Seattle researchers snapped up the lion’s share of a massive round of grants announced today by the National Institutes of Health. The Institute for Systems Biology, the University of Washington, and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, WA—along with a group at Stanford University—have been awarded five-year grants totaling $68.7 million to study dangerous viral pathogens like bird flu, SARS, and tuberculosis.

The Institute for Systems Biology’s piece is worth $14 million over the next five years to study dangerous strains of flu, like H5N1 or so-called bird flu, says ISB’s Alan Aderem, the lead investigator on the grant. The UW’s Michael Katze will study a separate project on flu and SARS, while the PNNL’s Joshua Adkins will lead a group studing bacterial troublemakers like salmonella and yersinia pestis, according to a statement from the NIH.

The main thrust of ISB’s research is to learn more about components of the immune system, the flu virus, and how the two interact with each other, Aderem says. The ultimate goal is to identify new targets on cells for drugs and vaccines. Seasonal flu kills 40,000 people a year in the U.S. and costs the economy an estimated $80 billion a year, so the researchers shouldn’t have too much trouble explaining to the public why this matters. The results will be made available in public databases, the sort of thing any pharmaceutical or biotech company could use as a foundation to develop new products.

The immune system is hugely complex, so I wondered why this is the right time to take on such an ambitious project. The ISB, in its eight-year history, has been working to this point by first studying systems biology of microorganisms like yeast, then mice, and is now ready to step up to studying humans, Aderem says. “We have the computational tools to understand this mountain of data that you get from high-throughput techniques, so we’re ready to take on a big problem like this,” Aderem says.

The ISB plans to hire another eight to 10 people, mostly senior scientists, adding to its staff of 230, Aderem says. It will also divvy out some of its grant work to researchers at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, University of California, San Diego, and Vanderbilt University, he says.

The researchers in Memphis, led by Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty, will expose mice to H5N1 flu in a more secure facility than the one ISB has, Aderem says. The key fluids and tissues of interest, which need to be examined to see how their immune systems respond, will be shipped to ISB, where high-powered computers will analyze and map out the immune response, Aderem says.

“These new projects promise to deepen our fundamental understanding of the complex molecular processes of microbes and their interactions with the host, including how molecular-level events lead to the initiation and progression of disease,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in a statement. “We anticipate that these projects will generate new insights that will help us develop new tools to prevent, diagnose and treat important infectious diseases.”

None of the research teams in the Northwest collaborated on their grant proposals, and didn’t have any idea whom they were competing with for the grants, Aderem says. “These projects are completely independent of one another,” Aderem says. “It really is interesting that three of the four of them come from the Pacific Northwest.”

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