Chattanooga institute seeks to be hub for biomedical research

Chattanooga institute seeks to be hub for biomedical research

February 8th, 2011 by Emily Bregel in News

Staff Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press Dr. Justin Boyd speaks Monday at UTC during a conference to launch fundraising for the Chattanooga Regional Institute.

It's been more than a decade since U.S. researchers first assembled the human genome sequence, mapping more than 3 billion letters in the human DNA code into a blueprint of human beings.

Now researchers say Chattanooga could be at the forefront of biomedical research that is only now beginning to tap the potential of that momentous development.

"The promise of it was not realized immediately," Philip Bourne, professor in the Skaggs School of Pharmacy at the University of California San Diego, said Monday at a conference on computational biology.

He was among the dozen or so speakers at the event, held in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's University Center.

"Everybody thought this would be the beginning of a whole new way of change in biology and medical treatments," he said, "but 10 years, 11 years later, it's really just starting to happen."

Chattanooga Research Institute, a new nonprofit medical research company that sponsored the conference, aims to make that kind of research happen locally.

The company's founders hope to harness the power of computational biology to analyze huge stores of already-existing medical and genetic data -- from hospitals, drug companies and academic settings -- which could hold the key to more cost-efficient and effective drug development.

The research could also pave the way to more personalized medications and dosing regimens, tailored to an individual's genetic make-up.

WHAT IS COMPUTATIONAL BIOLOGY?

Computational biology, or bioinformatics, is the use of computers to describe and distill biological data sets. A data set could be clinical data, chemical data or genomic data. It can be applied to drug discovery, public health and other biological research questions. Even searching medical literature online could be considered a form of bioinformatics.

Source: Justin Boyd, Chattanooga Research Institute

Chattanooga Research Institute, co-founded by neuroscientist Justin Boyd, hopes to raise $6.25 million to fund its first three years in operation.

The institute will focus much of its time on "cleaning up" and storing huge amounts of raw data already in existence -- including patient medical records, genetic information from blood tests and results from clinical trials -- and using it to answer new medical questions, said Boyd, a scientist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

Computer models can also bring to light new uses for already-existing FDA-approved drugs, Bourne said.

For example, computational biology helped researchers discover hundreds of drugs used to treat other conditions that could be treatments for tuberculosis, which kills 2 million people annually, Bourne said.

"This is not magic, but it's a step toward new treatments," Bourne said.

Simulated experiments could also pare down the 15-year, $1 billion process pharmaceutical companies often go through to get a drug to market, said Boyd.

Simulations, run by a company like Chattanooga Research Institute, help drug companies "fail cheap" by ruling out hundreds of drug compounds early in the drug research process, before real-life, expensive clinical testing ever begins, Boyd said.

"What we want to do is use computers as a filter," he said.

Extensive data storage and data-mining capabilities are the key to such research, and Chattanooga Research Institute would provide that key, using partners such as Terenine Technology Solutions, a technology company in Chattanooga, Boyd said.

WHY CHATTANOOGA?

Supporters of the Chattanooga Research Institute say the city has the technology, expertise and medical resources to be a hub for computational biology-based research.

With a nearby super-computer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and UTC's SimCenter, a supportive research community and city leaders embracing the research vision, Chattanooga could be a leader in the field, said Cony D'Cruz, chief business officer for biotech company Proteros Biostructures and one of the event's speakers.

"People don't quite understand how important it is," D'Cruz said. Chattanooga could be at the "forefront of the convergence between the information, the infrastructure, and being able to do something useful with it. That's a beautiful thing."

Chattanooga also has the necessary high-speed Internet capability, with the new gigabit-per-second Internet service from Chattanooga's EPB.

About 200 clinical trials are under way at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine in Chattanooga, which could be a source of both raw data and researchers who could fuel new developments in computational biology, Boyd and other speakers said.

One challenge for researchers has been getting doctors to recognize the benefits of using computational biology for their own patients, said Winston Hide, associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. For example, in Chattanooga, stroke researchers could utilize patient data to study genetic and environmental factors contributing to high rates of stroke here, Hide said.

"Young doctors are very keen to use the new technologies. If they have that opportunity, they can dramatically enhance the field," he said. "It's almost like bringing a university, without building one, into the environment."

Contact staff writer Emily Bregel at ebregel@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6467.