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Researchers uniting to probe genes

Some day in the not-so-distant future, your doctor might tell you to take two genetically engineered aspirin and call in the morning.

Everyone, because of his or her genetic make-up, is more or less susceptible to a given disease or disease treatment. Doctors could target diseases much more precisely - think rifle instead of shotgun approach - if they could prescribe medications that have been customized for each person.

“So many diseases have a genetic underpinning. That doesn't mean a gene will absolutely cause a disease, but it makes you more susceptible ... The fantasy that a lot of us share is that a genetic test will allow individualized therapies,” said Dr. Alan Saltiel, a professor of medicine at the University of Michigan's Life Science Institute.

Researchers at the Medical College of Ohio, University of Toledo and Bowling Green State University are worried they'll be left behind other institutions if they don't use and understand this new technology, which involves analyzing genes and other biological systems in the body to determine genetic make-up.

So the three area colleges are planning to join forces, hire faculty, and buy computer equipment to study human genetics and other life-science issues.

A MCO task force has submitted a proposed bioinformatics program that would cost about $1 million over the next four years. The proposal includes hiring two faculty members, adding a bioinformatics lab, and starting bioinformatics educational classes.

MCO administrators have given the plan initial approval, although some details need to be worked out and the plan must be presented to the board of trustees, said Dr. Frank McCullough, MCO president.

Bioinformatics plans at UT and BGSU aren't quite as far along as MCO's, but researchers at each institution are ready to go.

“Bioinformatics is a necessity, not a luxury,” said Dr. Xiche Hu, a chemistry professor who is nvolved with UT's bioinformatics effort. “By joining hands, we can complement each other.”

The potential for improving medical care through a better understanding of how genes influence everything - from eye color to risk of heart disease - is enormous, Dr. Saltiel said.

The University of Michigan was so convinced of this potential in 1999 that it started the U-M Life Sciences Initiative. Estimates vary, but the co-director of the Life Sciences Institute, a $100 million building the university is constructing, said the university could spend $500 million to $700 million on the initiative in this decade.

Dr. Saltiel is the first of 30 faculty members expected to be hired. New labs will be built, computers purchased, and faculty from departments ranging from mathematics to chemistry to biology will begin working under one roof at the Institute. “Life Sciences” will be a broad term for UM scientists, and could include almost anything biologically related: from how genes affect behavior or disease risk to how cells in the body convert sugar to energy.

“It's really an effort to put Michigan in the forefront of life sciences research,” institute co-director Jack Dixon said.

The challenge for all medical researchers concerning the study of genes and how they affect the human body is one of sheer, overwhelming scale. The human genetic sequence is represented by repeating letters of A, C, T, or G. These four letters repeat for billions of characters. The phrase “needle in a haystack” has never been so appropriate. Trying to find which gene or genes might influence your susceptibility to heart disease, for example, is an immense challenge, according to scientists.

To analyze, sort and study these billions of genes, scientists have turned to powerful computers.

This melding of biology and computer science is often referred to as bioinformatics. This technology is used to study a wide variety of things, including how cells function, which genes might be responsible for influencing risk of disease, and what proteins do for healthy development of the body.

Mr. Dixon said having this technical know-how will be crucial for every reputable medical college and research university in the 21st century.

If a university doesn't invest the money now, it risks falling behind as the technology becomes standard and widely used, he said.

That's what worries MCO, UT and BGSU scientists as they look north across the state lineand see the millions UM is spending.

“We're not going to put up that kind of money,” said MCO's Dr. Robert Blumenthal. “But this is the sort of thing we will have to do to survive.”

If MCO and other area research universities don't embrace the new technology, not only will they find it hard to recruit students and faculty, they risk losing federal grant money, Dr. Blumenthal said.

The National Institutes for Health “will say there's no reason to fund research that doesn't use state-of-the art technology,” he said.

The NIH's Dr. Alan Guttmacher said he wouldn't predict things would get that extreme, but added that Dr. Blumenthal is right to assume bioinformatics knowledge will become crucial.

“They're right to be thinking about this now,” he said.

He compares today's impending bioinformatics revolution with the introduction of microscopes.

“MCO would have been wrong a century ago to say we don't need microscopes, Harvard has enough of them. If they [MCO] want to do important research, they need to have this,” said Dr. Guttmacher, the senior clinical advisor to the director of the NIH's Human Genome Research Institution.

Dr. Blumenthal said MCO hopes to share resources with UT and BGSU. Faculty and computers for bioinformatics are expensive, so it makes sense to develop partnerships in bioinformatics, according to officials at all three institutions.

“We have a computer science and math department, which MCO doesn't have, but on the other hand they have a lot of experience in heart disease and other medical research,” said Dr. Neocles Leontis, a chemistry professor who's leading BGSU's bioinformatics effort. “What I could envision is we might do more of the [computer] training so they can learn how to use the tools, and their faculty could be more on the application side.”

Another challenge for all three institutions will be recruiting faculty. Demand for faculty trained in bioinformatics is intense and that demand has driven up salaries. Drug companies, realizing the potential, are offering enormous salaries in some cases, Dr. Guttmacher said.

At a computer lab at UT, Dr. Hu demonstrates how he uses powerful computers to conduct biological experiments. He's using computers to study how plants convert sunlight into energy. He dons 3-D glasses and peers at a computer screen, which has a 3-D image of a proteins in a plant cell on it.

He can use the computer to test different theories; a process that takes seconds rather than the hours or weeks it might take with other methods.

Dr. Guttmacher said this is how most biological experiments might take place in the future.

“The idea is that in the not-to-distant future most biological experimentation won't be done in wet labs,” but in the computer. “You'll have a computer model of a cell that's so sophisticated that you'll just “grow” the cell on the computer,” he said. “You could say, what happens if we dump a bunch of sodium on the cell and the computer would work it out for you.”

Dr. Guttmacher said news of genetic advances, including the potential of bioinformatics sometimes gets hyped, but he said MCO, Toledo, and Bowling Green would be smart to spend money now, even if there's no immediate pay-off.

“When we talk about basic infrastructure, that's important to have,” he said. “Will all the research at MCO involving bioinformatics work? No. But that's true of all research. There clearly is some hype with some of this, but in terms of if this is a real tool, it's as real as computers are.”

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