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Genomics Laid the Foundation for Big Global Health Advances To Come This Decade


Xconomy Seattle — 

In science, success is often measured in small advances in understanding. But in the past decade, technology has led to large leaps of new knowledge that has been well utilized in the battle against global infectious disease.

And, this decade holds even greater promise.

Genomics is an excellent example. We’ve seen the genomics revolution begin in force, providing researchers with vast amounts of data that presented new possibilities. In October 2002, there was a landmark achievement in the world of infectious disease research: Nature published the complete genome sequence of Plasmodium falciparum, the main cause of human malaria. That was accompanied by the complete sequence of Plasmodium yoelii, the agent in rodent malaria. These simultaneously provide the malaria community with a foundation of knowledge for both a lethal human pathogen and its model animal pathogen. The sequencing and annotation of the malaria parasite genome was led by Malcolm Gardner, a malaria researcher who is now at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute (SBRI).

Importantly, the knowledge gained by knowing the 5,000+ genes that make up P. falciparum has been exploited by malaria researchers around the world to develop new strategies to fight an age-old disease. During 2010, SBRI will move into human clinical trials with a promising malaria vaccine that would not have been possible without genomics. SBRI scientists have found that by removing specific essential genes from the malaria parasite genome the malaria infection is stopped while it is in the liver, before it migrates into the blood and causes disease. Most notably, this resulted in complete immune protection from subsequent infection in the mouse model system. Two genes have been removed from the human malaria parasite, P. falciparum to create the live genetically attenuated parasite vaccine that will be tested.

In addition to the genomics revolution, we’ve witnessed exponential growth in high-throughput analyses that assess the activities and functions of genes that were identified in genome projects. There’s also been advances in the field of informatics that provided the ability to store, integrate and evaluate the abundant data. This is accelerating the ability to translate these findings into applications.

This explosion of data over the past decade has led to new understanding and the realization that much more can be accomplished, especially if researchers worldwide collaborate to provide the synergy that accelerates progress. On the Seattle front, these advances contributed to the growth and strengthening of several organizations, including ours. Over the past 10 years, Seattle has cemented its leadership position in life science and global health research. By working together in this new decade, the possibilities of what we can accomplish are very promising.

While we learned much, we also discovered that the biology of the organisms that cause the world’s greatest suffering and death are more complex than many had imagined. At the recent annual meeting of the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association, keynote speaker Elias Zerhouni, former head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a fellow at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, underscored this realization and concluded that much more work needs to be done to understand basic biology. A future challenge is to extract the key knowledge that from the large amounts of data that we’ve gained so that it can be put to use.

The advances in the past decade were accomplished during the period during which the NIH budget and a robust economy supported private research and development. The commitment of the Gates Foundation, financial and otherwise, shone a spotlight on the need to improve global health and led others—both scientists and funders—to engage in the battle especially on infectious diseases. An inflection point that rocked the infectious disease world was the bold call and associated commitment in October 2007 by Bill and Melinda Gates for the eradication of malaria. It was an act of faith that the combination of technology and personal commitment can make this happen. The “e” word was daunting to many, but is embraced by us at SBRI.

As we move begin this new decade, we’ll face and overcome the challenges of how to leverage progress and commitment during uncertain economic times. Some of these challenges may be met by novel approaches including how biomedical research is funded. Others may be addressed by exploring different ways in which organizations and sectors to work together.

The not-for-profit sector has a specific role to play in dealing with infectious diseases of global importance, because these diseases are, as a group, all neglected. As for-profit enterprises have focused primarily on chronic, non-communicable diseases because of market considerations, it’s our job to focus on need and the underserved and bring new solutions to bear within the next decade. One challenge we will need to face and overcome is how to develop more productive partnerships between the non- and for-profit sectors that will provide value for both.

Looking to 2020, we now have the challenge of expanding and building on the knowledge that was gained in the first 10 years of the new millennium and converting them into novel interventions that can be used to improve health in this country and around the world. The challenge of developing robust health solutions that can be delivered in resource constrained areas can show the way to provide local solutions at reduced costs. Necessity may drive invention but economics is likely to drive the use of resultant effective and efficient interventions. The solutions are within reach; we need to work together to bring them to fruition within the next decade.

Ken Stuart is the founder of Seattle Biomedical Research Institute. His research is focused on unicellular parasites that are estimated to kill around a million people each year. Follow @

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