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Federal Funds and Bioinformatics Grants: A Match Made in Heaven?


While the public may regard Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston as America's sexiest newlyweds, most scientists find the marriage between biology and technology a more alluring union. And in this honeymoon period of bioinformatics, the federal government appears to be doing everything it can to cash in on the relationship to produce a new generation of scientific offspring. They are even going to modify the way bioinformatics grant applications are reviewed: Now, "no data" doesn't necessarily mean "no chance!"

By bringing together seemingly disparate disciplines, bioinformatics has united the foot soldiers of scientific research: Computer scientists find themselves sharing coffee with gene hunters, programmers sit in on molecular biology seminars, and biologists and technologists share bylines on research papers. The hope is that by pooling these distinct personnel resources, medical and basic research questions can be answered more effectively.

But to really harness power from the bioinformatics tsunami, researchers will need to be experts in aspects of both biological and computer science, and therein lies a fundamental problem: Relatively few scientists in either camp are sufficiently well versed in the other's line of work to fully exploit the field.

Fast Times at Federal High

To help improve the situation, federal agencies are introducing educational programs and grants to train new breeds of scientists who are experienced in both the technological wizardry of computer scientists and the investigative skills of laboratory scientists. Even agencies that have traditionally not nurtured any biological research are eager to get in on the action.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), for example, is now "very interested in mixing disciplines such as computing, physical science, and biology together," says DARPA spokesperson, Jan Walker. "We definitely intend to invest in this area," she says. "There are going to be radical new areas of science."

And radical science is what Department of Energy (DOE) officials have been investing in since the mid-90s, when they became one of the first federal agencies to support training and research in this new field. The agency has been "a real pioneer in federal funding of bioinformatics research," says Michael Levitt, chair of computational structural biology at Stanford University's School of Medicine. "They started a relatively small program of between $2 million and $3 million a year, a little over 5 years ago," he remembers. "The money came at a time when no agency, public or private, even knew about bioinformatics," Levitt recalls. Since those early days, "many dozens" of investigators have been funded and "at least 40 of the brightest young people" have been trained, he says.

You can search federal agency awards databases to find out what kinds of bioinformatics projects have been funded and areas of interest:

But officials are not resting on their laurels and are emphasizing the need for more training and funding initiatives. "I'm not convinced we're getting all the functional information there is," says Daniel W. Drell, a program manager at DOE, who reckons that the development of better DNA "sequence assembly" tools is vital in understanding recent genome sequencing triumphs. Indeed, one of the DOE's major objectives is to fund the "annotation" of genomes--predicting function from the genetic code.

NIH Creates Centers of Excellence

Also at the forefront of scientific change is the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is introducing new funding programs in bioinformatics. In April, for example, NIH officials launched the Biomedical Information Science and Technology Initiative (BISTI) to provide bioinformatics training and research grants to institutions and individuals over the next 2 years. With receipt dates scheduled three times a year--March, July, and November--until 2002, applicants will have plenty time to get prepared.

To enhance cross-disciplinary training of bioinformaticians, the BISTI program aims to establish as many as 20 "National Programs of Excellence in Biomedical Computing" (NPEBC) around the country. All investigators can apply for the designation--even parties that have limited experience in bioinformatics, as long as they first win one of NIH's new " P20 planning grants." These awards support the creation of core bioinformatics frameworks, around which "centers of excellence" can be built. Applicants--who can represent either their university or collaborative efforts between institutions--will have to win a second grant--the NPEBC (P50) award--to fully establish their national program.

Bioinformatics Grants for Researchers Bend the Rules

Of course, the NIH is just as concerned with health research as it is with educational training, but reviewers and staff have traditionally been "reluctant" to fund projects that involve computation, an NIH advisory committee wrote last year. To rectify that, the NIH announced another new grant in June: The Innovations in Biomedical Information Science and Technology awards. In contrast to the requirements of NIH's R01 grants (the primary source of funding for up-and-coming researchers), applicants for these grants are "not expected to submit preliminary data or propose hypothesis-driven research," reveals Elliot Postow, director of NIH's division of Molecular and Cellular Mechanisms.

By setting aside these usually pivotal review criteria, the NIH is acknowledging that many bioinformatics projects are infused with a certain degree of "associated risk"--the inclusion of which would normally be detrimental to any grant application's success. In addition, standard review groups "may not appreciate the research projects or objectives," points out Richard Swaja, senior advisor for biomedical engineering at NIH. For this reason, all BISTI applications--or any that involve true biological computational methodology--will be reviewed by groups that contain "special expertise in the computer science and informatics areas," he says.

Postdoctoral Fellows Follow Suit

Traditional review "rules" are being bent elsewhere, too. The National Science Foundation (NSF), for example, also handles reviews of bioinformatics proposals with similar considerations; but some applicants are still somewhat hesitant: "I was very uneasy about my application, because there was no true biological hypothesis," says Dean Adams, a postdoctoral fellow at Iowa State University. Nevertheless, his project, which involves determining structural features of proteins by applying statistical methods most often used to compare parts of the human anatomy, proved sufficiently intriguing to win him the fellowship.

NSF Boosts Funds for Integrative Bioinformatics Research Training

The NSF also committed last month a total of $49 million over the next 5 years to 19 recipients of its Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) grants. Fifty-seven universities across the country have received the awards since they were introduced 3 years ago. Fred Fox, professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles, is one of this year's awardees--his group's application secured $2.69 million. "IGERT funding is instrumental in drawing faculty into bioinformatics as mentors," says Fox, revealing that one of the biggest problems UCLA's bioinformatics program faces is recruiting new faculty.

Bioinformatics Across the Pond

While federal initiatives here in the States are gaining momentum, similar progress is being made in Europe. In the U.K., for example, there are a number of funding opportunities: the Medical Research Council is pumping funds into bioinformatics research studentships, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has a number of bioinformatics initiatives, and the Economic and Social Research Council is supporting "transdisciplinary" research in "innovative health technologies."

The European Molecular Biological Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, has also been instrumental in supporting European efforts to promote bioinformatics. The Swiss have their Swiss Bioinformatics Institute, and the European Bioinformatics Institute, an outstation of EMBL based in the U.K. (see Next Wave's profile of the EBI), is another of the premier organizations involved in providing funds and training mechanisms in biocomputing.

The NSF grant will also enable students at UCLA to attend courses in math and computing without having to dip into their supervisor's resources. "Qualified students are very difficult to find," says Christopher Lee, associate professor at UCLA, who has also been instrumental in establishing their bioinformatics program.

Dan Voytas, associate professor at Iowa State University, concurs, stating that winning NSF's IGERT funding was "a unique opportunity to become a leader in this emerging discipline."

Industry Matters Too: Federal Funds for Businesses

And while becoming leaders in bioinformatics allows universities to push academic research forward, federal funding can also help forge relationships with industry: "It is critical to have universities collaborate with industry," stresses Cyrus Harmon, president and CEO of Neomorphic, a West Coast-based company that designs tools to scrutinize genomic information.

As part of NIH's BISTI plan, for example, new business innovation grants were created to encourage companies, as well as universities, to develop biocomputing technologies. "We are delighted that the NIH recognizes the need for computational methodology," enthused Harmon last year after Neomorphics won a small business grant. The funding, he says, will provide a "competitive advantage" in the analysis of genomes.

A Radically Different Marriage

"Radical" is a good way to describe the kinds of research projects these federal agencies can expect the new breed of scientists to dream up. But federal officials will also have to keep track of the consequences of bioinformatics--the ethical, privacy, and legal issues the new technologies will spawn.

Ultimately, federal agencies are hoping for a sound return on their investments: Creating expert scientists trained in both the biological and computing sciences. The movie star and sitcom princess may have a marriage made in heaven, but as training and research programs become firmly entrenched across the country, bioinformatics will prove to be more than a match made over coffee.

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