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March 14, 2006

U-M launches new Center for Computational Medicine and Biology

ANN ARBOR, MI – Here’s the biological equivalent of the old needle-in-a-haystack problem: It takes about 24,000 protein-coding genes and nearly 3 billion bits of DNA to make a human being. Hidden in this mountain of complex genetic data is information that will help scientists discover how to cure cancer, prevent diabetes or treat severe depression. The problem is how to find it.

Gilbert Omenn, MD, Ph.DAt least part of the solution – according to Gilbert S. Omenn, M.D., Ph.D., a U-M professor of internal medicine, human genetics and public health – will be found in collaboration and computerization.  Tomorrow’s breakthroughs in biomedical research will be made by networks of scientists working together using shared computer resources, tools, data and software.

To expedite these interdisciplinary breakthroughs, the U-M Medical School is providing $2.0 million in initial funding to establish a new Center for Computational Medicine and Biology (CCMB). The center’s mission is to support and enhance collaborations that link biomedical research with bioinformatics, engineering and computational science resources across the university. 

“This new center will make it easier for clinicians and researchers to share data in a cooperative environment that supports integration and analysis of data at all levels,” said Allen S. Lichter, M.D., dean of the U-M Medical School. “CCMB will position the U-M as a leader in the integration of biomedical information and the development of advanced computer technology.”

“Combining U-M resources and expertise will enhance our ability to collaborate with our colleagues both at Michigan and around the country,” said Omenn, CCMB’s director. “Our goal is to create a computational environment that supports data analysis, simulation, concept-building, design of new experiments and multi-investigator collaboration. By improving our ability to integrate research and analysis we will be in a better position to make progress on complicated diseases that are frustrating the biomedical research community.”

According to Omenn, the center is an interdisciplinary research, training, and service organization that will enhance informatics-based systems modeling and data integration from biomedical research. Its main focus will be supporting interdisciplinary research involving advanced scientific disciplines like genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, and bioinformatics. Initially, research at the center will focus on biological problems related to prostate cancer, diabetes (type I and II) and bipolar depression.

CCMB will provide the administrative infrastructure for major U-M computational initiatives. Currently, the largest initiative is the National Center for Integrative Biomedical Informatics (NCIBI), established at U-M in 2005 with an $18.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“The NCIBI award is one of only seven NIH-funded centers designed to create a nationwide computing infrastructure for the research community,” said Brian D. Athey, Ph.D., the grant’s principal investigator, and director of the Michigan Center for Biological Information, now a part of the CCMB. “It positions the U-M and its partners at the center of the NIH Roadmap’s vision for a national networked computational infrastructure for biomedical computing. We focus on integrating biomedical information and developing computational technology to facilitate the work of many NIH-supported scientists nationally.”

CCMB’s infrastructure is organized into three primary parts: interdisciplinary research initiatives, a bioinformatics graduate program, and computing and data infrastructure. More than 30 U-M researchers are affiliated with the center already. A new NIH-supported training grant for the 5-year-old  bioinformatics graduate program is in place. The first Ph.D. students will graduate this spring with degrees in bioinformatics and computational biology. David States, M.D., Ph.D., the founding director of the graduate program, is a computational biologist and U-M professor of bioinformatics and human genetics; the current director is Daniel Burns, Ph.D., professor of mathematics.

“This is the era of the Internet and incredible computer capabilities,” said H.V. Jagadish, Ph.D., a U-M professor of electrical engineering and computer science who is affiliated with the center. “Scientists are generating massive amounts of new data related to these diseases. All these data must be organized, manipulated and analyzed. CCMB and NCIBI will help us bring the right mix of people and computational resources together to deal with these complex issues.”

For more information, see the center’s Web site at http://www.ccmb.med.umich.edu.

Written by Bruce Spiher

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