Alan Aderem, With Team in Tow, Bolts From ISB to Take Leading Role at Seattle BioMed

3/14/11Follow @xconomy

Alan Aderem, the immunologist who co-founded the Institute for Systems Biology a decade ago with Leroy Hood and Reudi Aebersold, is leaving the Seattle research center to take over the presidency of another of one of the Northwest’s other leading centers of biomedicine—the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute.

Aderem, 55, is joining Seattle BioMed as director, and taking a team of more than 40 people from the Institute for Systems Biology with him to carry out research into new vaccines and drugs for global health. By January 1st, Aderem will step up the ladder as president of Seattle BioMed, replacing founder and president Ken Stuart in the top decision-making role. Stuart, 70, will remain on the Seattle BioMed faculty, and on the board of trustees. A $7 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is helping bring the people, technology and equipment over to Seattle BioMed.

The leadership switch represents a major shift in the Seattle research community. Aderem has long been seen as the logical successor at the ISB to Hood, the biotech pioneer who turned 72 last fall. Besides giving Aderem a chance to move up, the switch represents a philosophical evolution for global health, by intensifying its emphasis on the “systems biology” approach—which seeks to analyze entire biological systems in concert instead of one gene, one protein, one pathogen, at a time.

“When Lee and Reudi and I co-founded the ISB 10 years ago, my idea was always to apply the new field to global health,” Aderem says. “I was director for most of the time I was there. Now, the time has come, and the field of systems biology has significantly matured, so I can focus on what I want to focus on, which is global health. This is the right place.”

Stuart, who founded Seattle BioMed back in 1976, said he’s “looking for another hand on the helm.” He will go back to his primary passion, working in the lab, while continuing to work on board-level issues and fundraising for the institute.

The actual move of scientists from the ISB is coming in a couple of phases, and will start the first week of April, Stuart says. Once it’s complete, Seattle BioMed will have grown into an organization with about 375 employees, and an annual budget of about $60 million—a 20 percent increase over where it is today, Stuart says. Aderem has teams who work on influenza, tuberculosis, HIV, and basic immunology—all of whom are making the move to Seattle BioMed, he says. The associate director of the Institute for Systems Biology, John Aitchison, is also joining Seattle BioMed, while maintaining an affiliation with the Institute for Systems Biology, Aderem says.

Ken Stuart (left) and Alan Aderem

While all of Aderem’s grant support will follow him to Seattle BioMed—which means both dollars and people will flow away from the Institute for Systems Biology—Aderem said he and Aitchison still plan to collaborate with their former colleagues. Hood was supportive of the move, Aderem says. The two remain “close personal friends,” Aderem says, adding, “when I started thinking about this, Lee was one of my confidantes. We talked a lot about it. As time went on, he understood my passion for it, and was quite supportive. Lee is a great optimist.”

Hood, when I spoke to him briefly this afternoon, said he expects a couple new faculty members to join his Institute later this year, which will “roughly” replace the people who are departing for Seattle BioMed. He said the move by Aderem is a sign of the maturation of systems biology—but that personal factors were involved in the decision, too.

“Alan has wanted to assume a leadership role for some time, and I’m not ready to step down,” Hood says. “This is a logical place for him to go. It was a matter of timing, really, as these things often are. It makes a lot of sense.”

Although the grants will go with Aderem, he says the institute won’t be decimated by the losses. The Institute for Systems Biology is still in the middle of a five-year, $100 million research program supported by the government of Luxembourg, which has made it “pretty flush,” Aderem says.

Aderem and Stuart have known each other personally for about 20 years, and once used to play squash together on the courts at Rockefeller University in New York, Aderem says. The two have carried on a variety of scientific collaborations over the years, he says.

The potential now at Seattle BioMed, Aderem says, is to go beyond what he has done in the past with identifying certain cell types involved in basic immune reponses. Systems biology, which has a predictive element to it that has eluded microbiology approaches of the past, ought to help researchers avoid time-consuming, costly blunders like the failure of Merck’s HIV vaccine candidate in clinical trials a couple years ago. The idea is that by applying some of the systems approaches, Seattle BioMed ought to be able to help design better vaccine candidates and predict how they will perform in trials.

“The really exciting thing is for the first time we’ve got systems biology and infectious disease research and immunology under one roof,” Aderem says. “It’s the only institute in the world that has done that. It’s really exciting. It’s going to have huge impact.”

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