UW Pulls in $300M From Stimulus, Places Big Bet for the Future on Genomics

4/12/10Follow @xconomy

The woman in charge of spinning University of Washington technology out into the business world, Linden Rhoads, boldly predicted a year ago that UW would pull in $300 million from the federal stimulus. Now one of UW’s top genome scientists, Debbie Nickerson, has confirmed the number, and says a big chunk of the loot is going into her cutting-edge lab.

The UW has been awarded about $300 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, AKA the “stimulus,” Nickerson said Friday at the Technology Alliance’s Science and Technology Discovery Series. That investment has created about 2,000 local jobs, Nickerson says. About $25 million of taxpayer money, funneled via the National Institutes of Health, has been used to create a new Northwest Genome Center.

(After double-checking with help from UW computer scientist Ed Lazowska, I found that $193 million of stimulus money has arrived at the university already; the total climbs to $270 million when counting the second year of guaranteed stimulus grants, and to $300 million if you count stimulus grants for things other than research.)

Those are big-time dollars, and a lot of responsibility to deliver a payoff. But Nickerson, doesn’t come across as someone full of self-important hot air. A native of Queens, NY, where her family calls her “Dr. Genomey” pronounced like “Juh-know-me?” in a Queens accent. She was unusually good at breaking down the sometimes impenetrable jargon of genomics into plain English, and explaining why the Northwest Genome Center matters.

Debbie Nickerson

Debbie Nickerson

“This is my new Corvette,” Nickerson said.

The center—which also has received support from the Washington Research Foundation and the state’s Life Sciences Discovery Fund—is more about the potential for the science and human health than it really is about jobs. While Nickerson has been able to hire a few biotech industry veterans during the downturn, and some promising college grads, which she notes in this NIH-produced video, she didn’t say exactly how many people the Northwest Genome Center has hired.

Most of the work involves highly automated operation of “next-generation” gene sequencing instruments. These tools, and the software that helps store the data, have enough horsepower to plow through a sequence of about a billion A, C, G, and T chemical base pairs every day. That’s up from a few million per day a decade ago, and about a thousand a day back in 1992 when people doubted whether something like the Human Genome Project was even possible.

Today’s machines don’t make perfectly accurate reads on the first run-through, but they are fast enough that it’s practical for scientists to run through a genome 50 times over to correct for errors, Nickerson says.

That speed and efficiency allows genome scientists to ask new questions, Nickerson says, like how tiny variations can make a big difference in physical traits. (She illustrated that with a slide that highlighted the difference in height between NBA star Shaquille O’Neal … Next Page »

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