This is an archived article.

August 1, 2001

Cell Systems Initiative and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will jointly probe mysteries of the cell’s inner workings

Two of the Northwest’s largest research institutions, the University of Washington and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, have agreed to jointly study the biological process that could hold the key to longer and better life.

The Joint Program in Cell Signaling will study the amazing ability of a cell to detect and respond to chemical and physical changes in its environment — including detecting and responding to other living cells.

“Now that the human genome has been decoded, we still must understand how the individual parts interact with each other so we will know what each part does,” says PNNL Biology Initiative Director Steve Wiley. “Without this next step, decoding the genome is like having the parts to an automobile with no manual to know how to put them together. Once there’s an understanding of cell systems, medical workers can move from after-the-fact treatment to prediction and prevention — and, hopefully, to cures.”

PNNL and UW officials say the agreement is the first outgrowth of the joint agreement signed between the two institutions in April. That agreement established a joint institute in nanoscience and nanotechnology. At the time, both parties said they hoped to establish other formal collaborations.

PNNL, based in Richland, Wash., is a major research institution that conducts more than $500 million a year in studies for the Department of Energy as well as other federal agencies and private companies. PNNL will cooperate with the UW’s Cell Systems Initiative, part of the UW’s Department of Bioengineering and School of Medicine. CSI is a research and educational initiative whose mission is to understand the dynamic information systems in cells. CSI includes industry and academic participants in collaborative research studies, focused on integrating genomic and functional information, powerful bioinformatics and novel experimental techniques to expand understanding of human disease. CSI’s private associates include Immunex Corp. and Isis Pharmaceuticals.

Thus, both CSI and PNNL are leaders in “integrated systems biology” research. CSI includes leading researchers in systems biology and provides access to a renowned medical school and medical research scientists, say PNNL officials. PNNL has been pioneering the development of advanced optical instruments, unique mass spectrometry facilities and mathematical models of cell signaling networks. PNNL has world-class experts and expertise in data visualization, development of high-end instrumentation and computational modeling, says Dr. Bob Franza, director of CSI and a research professor in the UW’s departments of bioengineering and molecular biotechnology.

“As we jointly pursue a comprehensive effort to model cells and their interactions, we will also pursue the development of an integrated, quantitative platform for observing molecular events as they occur in living cells. The resulting coherent program intimately links modeling and measurement — a likely consequence being the emergence of biomedically relevant insights and technologies that today remain beyond conception,” Franza says.

Both parties are writing grant proposals to fund future work, and they are confident that significant federal funding will follow, says Steve Colson, associate director of chemical structure and dynamics at PNNL.

The primary goal of the joint program is to develop tools, computational resources and related technologies to measure and predict changes in the interactions of molecules that comprise the living cell. To do this, researchers will work towards establishing a cell observatory — a multi-faceted environment for the real-time quantification of events as they occur in the living cell.

If the science progresses as expected, researchers would be able to develop more effective drugs and know in advance how a particular drug will work within a cell. The modeling could be done on a computer without initial tests on humans.

There’s a strong computational — as well as a biological — component to this work. Computational resources must be developed to simulate biological processes. Biologists cannot advance this field by using standard computer languages, researchers say.

“This is not your father’s biology,” says PNNL’s Wiley. “Multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional teams are needed to find solutions to big, complex problems in health, bioremediation and engineering. Institutions and disciplines cannot go it alone.”

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