Center of Excellence Making Progress Toward Improving Health Care, Spurring Economic Development

By Arthur Page

Release Date: May 20, 2005 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. --The new building on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus is nearing completion. The scientific agenda has been solidified, corporate partners identified and a formal organizational and governance structure adopted.

Barely four years after Gov. George Pataki announced an ambitious proposal to create jobs and jump-start the New York State economy through the creation of high-technology "centers of excellence," UB's New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences is well on its way toward fulfilling its dual mission of improving health care while facilitating economic development in Upstate New York.

"If you look at where we were six to eight months ago, there's been a tremendous amount of progress," said Satish K. Tripathi, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.

Perhaps the most visible example of progress is the center's new building at Virginia and Ellicott streets on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Construction of the four-story building is on track for completion in November, with occupancy anticipated in December or January, according to Kevin Thompson, director of facilities planning and design, University Facilities.

The building will feature two floors of information-technology research space and two floors of wet-lab research space. It will be connected via common corridors and a skywalk to new buildings housing the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute (HWI), which was formally dedicated on May 12, and the Center for Genetics and Pharmacology of Roswell Park Cancer Institute (RPCI), which also is nearing completion.

Bruce Holm, executive director of the Center of Excellence, points out that 500 scientists are expected to be working at the center within the next five years -- with half of those already affiliated with UB, HWI or RPCI, and half being new hires. The new hires, he said, will be made in areas identified jointly with UB deans as part of the UB 2020 strategic planning process.

Although part of UB 2020 (bioinformatics and health sciences are one of the 10 strategic strengths of the university identified by UB 2020), formal planning for the center began well before that for the other strategic strengths.

The center's updated business plan, finalized last December, establishes the center's governance structure, which includes an executive council overseeing the scientific and the economic development efforts, as well as a scientific advisory council and advisory boards in the areas of education and training, and economic development.

Holm noted that the center is in the process of naming members to the councils and boards.

The center's scientific agenda was established as a result of an all-day retreat attended by about 60 investigators from UB, RPCI and HWI -- similar to the "envisioning retreats" being held with the other nine strengths identified by UB 2020. The areas of scientific focus, Holm said, are based on the specific areas of strength of the center's partners and the work the center has been doing since its creation in 2001.

"We looked at what we have that's great, what we have that really needs work and, right now, what are the initiatives that we can go after and pull in," said Norma Nowak, the center's director of scientific planning.

Nowak is director of the center's Data Intensive Analytical Bioinformatics Core Group, which currently includes more than three dozen researchers in three areas: bioinformatics sciences, functional genomics/systems biology sciences and bioengineering sciences. Among those researchers is Jeffrey Skolnick, professor of structural biology. The core group also includes the research group Nowak directs at RPCI, which has a long track record working on the Human Genome Project and in developing tools to look at the entire genome, rather than at just one gene, in a single experiment.

Nowak will be a featured speaker on bioinformatics and genome research, along with other renowned experts, at a conference, "Beyond Genome 2005: The Future of Medicine Conference," to be held in June in San Francisco.

The core group serves as a fundamental technology and support resource for center members, working with groups of researchers in the center's five focus areas: cancer biology, headed by John Cowell and Michael Brattain; neurodegenerative diseases, headed by L. Nelson Hopkins; cardiovascular diseases, headed by John Canty; pathogenesis and biodefense, headed by Anthony Campagnari, and drug discovery and delivery, headed by William Jusko and Huw Davies. More than 50 researchers currently are associated with the five groups.

"These broad areas give us enough focus to do our job in areas where we already have excellence, and at the same time they have enough breadth to them that we can do innovative things and work in other areas," Holm said.

For instance, obesity research is a "hot" area that deserves to be considered on its own, he said. But since obesity impacts on neurological disease and cardiovascular disease, center members are not precluded from doing obesity research under the present business plan.

Nowak noted that with the appointment in April 2004 of Holm as executive director, the overall focus of the center shifted from one that was highly theoretical and computational to one that "actually directly impacts on health sciences and biomedical research."

"The idea is that what we really want to do within the center is to improve health care," she said. "The road to the human genome started in Buffalo," she noted, referring to her work, as well as that of colleagues at RPCI, on the Human Genome Project. "We're just trying to continue that so you're not just making the tools that sequence the genome, but are using that information to better treat patients and improve the health-care situation."

To accomplish its work, Nowak said, the center needs genetic epidemiologists and bioinformaticians to analyze data, as well as those with strong backgrounds in the basic and clinical sciences.

This is all tied together with informatics, Nowak said. "The real challenge is to integrate medical records with the data that comes out of the labs. And that will allow us then to clearly link those research tidbits with clinical phenotypes."

Nowak said researchers hope to develop better prognostic tools that would indicate, based on a person's genotype, whether he or she likely will respond to a specific treatment.

"We want to be able to tailor medical care to the individual and not just to the disease entities," she said.

The key to all this work is computational ability, Nowak said, noting that scientists are no longer able to keep databases on their computer desktops and there is a strong need to store and process a lot of data while making it accessible to many scientists.

Although it always has been affiliated with the Center of Excellence, the Center for Computational Research (CCR) now has a direct reporting relationship, Holm said. The new arrangement, he added, puts CCR in a better position to attract funding from the NIH and the state, while continuing to serve the needs of the broader university community.

The scientific discoveries made by center researchers will lead to new processes and products that are licensed to existing companies, as well as startup companies.

To facilitate technology transfer, the center has developed a commercialization resource network that includes such entities as the UB Office of Science, Technology Transfer and Economic Outreach (STOR); RPCI's Technology Transfer Office; CUBRC (Calspan-UB Research Center Inc.); Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, and BuffLink, Inc., a private, not-for-profit organization geared toward developing economic development opportunities in the life sciences, as well as corporate partners and other community-based organizations.

For example, the center is working with corporate partner GE Healthcare, Niagara Falls Memorial Medical, Niagara University and BuffLink to develop and evaluate the use of non-invasive approaches to cardiovascular disease, specifically regarding a new imaging system that can detect cardiac problems in 10 seconds, compared with traditional methods of inserting a catheter in the body, an invasive procedure that can take hours.

The center also is working on drug production with such corporate partners as Invitrogen, Amgen and Biogen. Holm noted that its work with the center has prompted Invitrogen, which supplies cell-growth material for biotech research, to keep its 550-job plant on Grand Island, and possibly add another 200 jobs.

Holm and Nowak advised staff in Albany working on legislation to create a $90 million economic development program tied to the centers of excellence. The program, Holm said, will provide funding to assist in the earliest stages of licensing and product development, before most venture capitalists are interested in investing.

In addition, the center has played a key role in numerous events designed to promote the work of the center and the advancement of the life sciences industry in Western New York.

Holm and Nowak spoke last October at the Western New York Technology and Biomedical Informatics Forum, a cross-industry forum that provided computer experts a chance to connect with life science researchers and explore partnership opportunities. The event drew more than 300 attendees and 50 exhibitors to the Niagara Falls Conference Center.

Center staff also assisted in planning and coordinating a conference, "Life Science Technologies: Innovations and Opportunities in Biotechnology, Biomedical Informatics and Medical Devices," held in Buffalo in March. Cosponsored by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the conference was said to have attracted the largest group of "heavy hitters" in bioscience that has ever visited the area, and included executives from the life-science units of GE, Intel and Oracle, as well as bioscience companies.