The University Record, September 20, 1999

U receives $5 million from Warner-Lambert Company

By Sally Pobojewski
Health System Public Relations

Michael Savageau (foreground) and research fellow Armindo Salvador in their lab. Savageau says the interdisciplinary bioinformatics initiative will enable scientists to make sense of the flood of data being generated by the Human Genome Project. Photo by Bob Kalmbach
The University will receive $5 million from the Parke Davis Pharmaceutical Research Division of Warner-Lambert Co. to help the University establish a new Program in Bioinformatics. This interdisciplinary program will offer graduate education and support pilot research studies in the emerging scientific field of bioinformatics, one of the areas highlighted in the Life Sciences Initiative.

The Warner-Lambert investment matches the Health System’s commitment, announced in October 1998 by Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs Gilbert S. Omenn. Computers, staff support, a classroom and new research laboratories will be located in the Medical School.

Bioinformatics merges recent advances in molecular biology and genetics with advanced computer science technology. The goal is increased understanding of the complex web of interactions linking the individual components of a living cell to the integrated behavior of the whole organism.

“We are very pleased that the U-M is willing to begin a graduate-level education and research program in this important area,” said Wendell Wierenga, senior vice president for Worldwide Pre-Clinical Research, Development and Technologies for the Parke Davis Pharmaceutical Research Division of Warner-Lambert. “Bioinformatics incorporates many disciplines and specialties and requires a unique cross-training environment. Trained scientists in this area are essential to accomplishing our goal of discovering and developing novel drugs from gene to target to patient in the next decade. The opportunity to do this collaboratively with the University will benefit all of us immensely.”

“This partnership with our colleagues at Warner-Lambert/Parke Davis is part of a broad relationship between the company and the University,” Omenn said. “It reflects our mutual recognition of the growing importance of research and education in this rapidly developing field of science. Bioinformatics will play a critical role in organizing and analyzing the coming avalanche of scientific data on genes and proteins—as well as knowledge of how human genetic variation interacts with behavior, environment, metabolism and diet.”

“The Human Genome Project and advances in molecular biology have generated a flood of new data about individual components of cells,” said Michael A. Savageau, professor of microbiology and immunology and director of the Bioinformatics Program. “But our knowledge is still only fragmented and descriptive. We know very little about how all these parts work together to create a living organism. We need computer assistance to organize all this information, identify patterns in data and develop mathematical models capable of characterizing thousands of biochemical variables simultaneously.”

A portion of the Health System funding will be used to finish renovating a 5,000-square-foot area that will be equipped with advanced computer hardware, software and network support, according to Savageau and Medical School Dean Allen S. Lichter. The area will include five research laboratories for new faculty plus a 500-square-foot Bioinformatics Core Facility with office space for a director and support staff to assist faculty, graduate students and collaborating scientists from Parke Davis who use the facility. Savageau added that the design phase for the renovation is complete and construction will begin later this fall.

Educational components of the Program in Bioinformatics already are under way, including a seminar series that brings experts in the field to campus to make presentations to students and faculty. In addition, the program’s introductory course in bioinformatics is being offered for the first time this fall. Taught by U-M faculty and Parke Davis scientists, the course is available to graduate and upper-level undergraduate students and Parke Davis personnel. Interdisciplinary Ph.D. and master’s degree programs in bioinformatics, now under development, will involve all branches of the University, Savageau said.

Faculty recruitment is a major goal of the new program, according to Savageau, because only a few scientists have expertise both in computer technology and biomedical science. “We hope to build a critical mass of faculty with this rare background combination who can advance frontiers in this emerging field and train a new generation of students,” he said.

Initial faculty appointments will be within the Medical School, Savageau added. He anticipates joint appointments with other departments and new faculty to be appointed by other schools and colleges directly—all of whom will be part of the Bioinformatics Program.

A portion of the Warner-Lambert grant will be used to fund pilot research projects by U-M and Parke Davis researchers working to develop new areas of knowledge or technology in bioinformatics.