the bioinformatics surge
Rapid developments in building premier center
By Arthur Page
The Buffalo Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics continues to build major momentum, with New York State Governor George E. Pataki in June 2002 pledging $61 million in state funds to the University at
Buffalo for constructing and equipping a building to house the center in downtown Buffalo and the hiring of a director for the center to join the already strong scientific team at UB.
Pataki, who proposed creation of the center in his January 2001 "State of the State" address, has envisioned it as "the state-of-the-art facility, not just in the United States, but in the world" in the field and an engine to spur economic development and create thousands of high-technology jobs in Western New York.
The foundation for the center’s ultimate success, Pataki said in a speech in Buffalo in early June 2002, has been created by unprecedented collaboration between state government and the private and university/research sectors in the community.
The Buffalo Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics will merge high-end technology, including supercomputing and visualization, with expertise in genomics, proteomics, bioimaging and pharmaceutical sciences to foster advances in science and health care. An emerging discipline, bioinformatics uses the power of supercomputers to interpret data in the biological sciences at the molecular level.
In announcing that $110 million had been allocated in this year’s state budget for support for the Buffalo Life Sciences Complex, which includes the building for the Buffalo Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics, Pataki praised Western New York for coming together and responding "in a way that others thought could not be possible."
Pataki noted that "in a short period of time," the private sector, including corporate giants HP, Veridian, Informax and Stryker Communications, had pledged investments of more than $150 million in the center. Also on board as partners and recruited with the help of UB scientists are Dell Computer, Sun Microsystems, Invitrogen, Q-Chem, SGI, Amersham Pharmacia Biotech, AT&T, Wyeth Lederle, Human Genome Sciences and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
UB is the lead academic institution for the center, with academic partners Roswell Park Cancer Institute (RPCI) and Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute (HWI). The Buffalo Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics, a state-of-the-art research and product development complex, will be linked physically with the new Center for Genetics and Pharmacology, to be built by RPCI with $41 million in state funding, as well as a facility to be built by HWI with $8 million in state funds that will replace its current facility. Groundbreaking for all three facilities is scheduled for this fall.
The Buffalo Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics is also receiving major federal support. UB is seeking a total of $12 million in support of the center this year under four separate appropriation bills.
In fact, separate congressional appropriations garnered by Representative Thomas Reynolds and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and totaling $3.1 million were a key factor in the recruitment of Jeffrey Skolnick, a world-recognized pioneer in the field for his work in computational biology, as director of the Buffalo Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics. The funds acquired through Clinton and Reynolds allowed for an upgrade of the UB supercomputer enabling Skolnick to conduct his research.
Also playing a major role in attracting the new director was $1.9 million provided by Pataki to help in the recruitment of Skolnick and two of his research colleagues from the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, where Skolnick was director of computational and structural genomics. Also adding leverage in the recruitment of the three scientists was a $1,542,000 three-year grant from the John R. Oishei Foundation to help support their salaries.
Skolnick’s appointment was announced in May by Pataki during the Industry University Day 2002 luncheon at which the governor received an "Igniting Ideas Award" for his leadership in establishing the center.
A world-renowned scientist in the fields of computational biology and bioinformatics and a UB distinguished professor in the Department of Structural Biology in the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Skolnick told 300 guests at the luncheon that "failure is not an option" will be his mantra when it comes to the work of the center.
"I certainly have been given the tools to make it absolutely world-class," Skolnick said when he met with local media representatives. "Quite often people talk about excellence, but they say, ‘Well, maybe we won’t have to be quite so excellent’ when you figure out what resources are required. But here in the state of New York, under the leadership of Governor Pataki, you have truly put together an extraordinary environment and hopefully … we will be the premier world center of bioinformatics."
Skolnick said he will recruit the country’s top researchers in bioinformatics to join his team, augmenting the breadth and depth of research expertise already in place at UB, as well as at HWI and RPCI.
"I have put together a comprehensive plan, and I have a dream list of candidates who I will be contacting in the next couple of years to achieve this," Skolnick added. "I don’t want to be second best. I absolutely want to be not one of the best, but the best, and we have been given the tools to do that; it is my burden to actually make it happen and you can hold me to that."
Skolnick explained that "if you look at where bioinformatics is now, it is on the cusp of the growth phase in terms of what it can accomplish. What people ultimately want to be able to do is usher in the age of personalized medicine. We want to be able to understand for each individual what are likely to be drug interactions and what are likely to be disease states."
One of the "very nice things about bioinformatics," he added, "is that the spin-off between what is the fundamental research today and commercialization tomorrow is really very short."
Skolnick, in 1999, was appointed director of computational and structural genomics at the Danforth Plant Center. With master’s and doctoral degrees in chemistry from Yale University, he has authored more than 200 peer-reviewed scientific papers and book chapters and served since 1982 on the biochemistry faculty at Washington University in St. Louis, his undergraduate alma mater.
Also joining UB are two of Skolnick’s colleagues at the Danforth Plant Center, Andrzej A. Kolinski and Marcos R. Betancourt.
Kolinski previously was a professor at the center in St. Louis and head of the biopolymers laboratory at the University of Warsaw in Poland. He earned his doctorate in chemistry from the University of Warsaw in 1979, and taught there and at Washington University in St. Louis, as well as worked at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. He has authored or co-authored dozens of journal articles, won numerous grants and earned several honors, including the Swietoslawski Award in 1994 and an International Scholar’s Award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in 1995.
Betancourt earned his doctorate in physics from the University of California, San Diego in 1995. Prior to working in the computational genomics laboratory at the Danforth Center, he was a researcher at the University of Maryland and the U of C at San Diego. His honors include the Enrico Fermi Award in 1986, a National Defense Science and Engineering Fellowship in 1989 and National Science Foundation Fellowships in 1996 and 1998.
The Buffalo Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics is an integral part of Pataki’s plan to develop centers of excellence across the state—the Buffalo center is one of five—to harness the strengths of universities and the private sector to create strategically targeted high-technology centers of innovation, all aimed at spurring economic development and creating jobs.
Arthur Page is director of news services at UB.