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New breed of scientists trained in BC

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June 10, 2002
Simon Fraser University is involved in the creation of a new program that will catapult B.C. to the leading edge of a new discipline—bioinformatics. Researchers and scholars have partnered to develop an unprecedented graduate program to meet the rapidly growing demand for bioinformaticians. Along with SFU, the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre at the BC Cancer Agency and the University of BC are involved in the partnership.

The demand for bioinformaticians is outstripping existing training programs North America-wide. Highly specific skills in biology and computer science enable these scientists to make sense of complex computer data sets tied to gene mapping. These data sets comprise a scientific bible of life, revealing how proteins and nucleic acids work to make healthy cells and cause diseases.

To researchers and drug companies, on an endless quest for cures and preventative treatments for diseases, such data are worth more than their weight in gold, as are the scientists who can decipher them. "Due to the exponential growth of data about molecules, cells and organisms, biology is now a very complex science. We need more scientists who can use the latest technology to mine the data and answer difficult questions about biological function," says Frederic Pio. An assistant professor at SFU’s department of molecular biology and biochemistry (MBB), Pio is one of several SFU researchers behind the creation of the new bioinformatics program.

It will train 30 to 60 researchers over five years. Steven Jones and Marco Marra, SFU graduates and adjunct professors working at the Genome Sciences Centre, will teach courses and co-ordinate work placement. Jones is the program’s director. The program will be launched in September. At SFU, it will be housed at the faculty of science’s new bioinformatics teaching lab. Students who have majored in biology or computer science will be eligible for the program. It will offer courses in bioinformatics, computational genomics, proteomics, statistical genetics and biomolecular modeling. The one to two-year long program still requires the approval of SFU’s Senate and Board of Governors.

SFU researchers who are established authorities internationally in bioinformatics and related fields will help guide the program’s development and mentor students. They include David Baillie, a Canada Research Chair in genomics; Fiona Brinkman, a bioinformatician recently named to MIT’s list of top 100 innovators; Arvind Gupta, one of Canada’s leading computational analysts, and Pio. An expert in proteomics (the structural and functional analysis of proteins in genomes), Pio has identified new families of proteins linked to autoimmune diseases and cancers.

The bioinformatics program will emphasize trans-disciplinary training and practical experience. Students will rotate through the labs of about 60 researchers at several participating institutions, including the University of Victoria and the Institute of Systems Biology in Seattle. "Exposure to a variety of real research problems in different settings will lead to the production of problem-solving bioinformaticians," notes Pio. "I also see the program as a recruitment tool for doctoral students in bioinformatics at SFU," says Bruce Brandhorst, a molecular biologist at SFU.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research(CIHR), a federal health research funding agency, is putting $300,000 annually for six years into the program. The Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, which funds health research in BC, is expected to provide a grant of at least $50,000 annually for four years. A grant is also anticipated from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a non-profit, philanthropic group in New York City.

Brandhorst, Jones, SFU dean of science Willie Davidson and Michael J. Smith, the chair of SFU’s molecular biology and biochemistry department helped secure CIHR funding.

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CONTACT:
Bruce Brandhorst, 604.291.4627, bruce_brandhorst@sfu.ca
Frederic Pio (speaks French), 604.291.5660, federic_pio@sfu.ca
Fiona Brinkman, 604.291.5646, brinkman@sfu.ca
Carol Thorbes, media&pr, 604.291.3035