SEATTLE, MARCH 14, 2011 – In a bold plan for scientific expansion and leadership for the future, Seattle Biomedical Research Institute (Seattle BioMed) today announced that it will integrate a systems biology approach with its global infectious disease research. Systems biology pioneer and renowned immunologist Alan Aderem, Ph.D., will join the Institute as Director to guide the implementation of this revolutionary approach, positioning Seattle BioMed as the only institute in the world with infectious disease research and systems biology fully integrated in one building.
According to Seattle BioMed President and Founder Ken Stuart, Ph.D., this expansion is an unprecedented opportunity for the organization. “We are expanding Seattle BioMed by integrating the systems biology approach to infectious disease research, with the specific purpose of accelerating the discovery and development of vaccines, drugs and diagnostic tools to combat the world’s deadliest diseases.”
Aderem added, “The power of systems biology lies in its capacity to predict the behavior of a biological system. If we have the ability to predict whether a drug or vaccine candidate for malaria, AIDS or tuberculosis will work before it goes into large scale clinical trials, we could move away from today’s typical ‘trial and error’ method toward a more powerful predictive approach to vaccine and drug discovery and development,” he said. “While we’ll be able to save time and money by optimizing candidates before expensive human clinical testing, the most important result will be counted in lives saved.”
Co-founder and former Director of the highly regarded Seattle-based Institute for Systems Biology (ISB), Aderem and more than 40 researchers and staff will join Seattle BioMed in spring 2011 as part of an expansion plan designed by Stuart and Seattle BioMed’s Board of Trustees. Two years ago, Seattle BioMed’s Council of Scientific Advisors, composed of five internationally renowned infectious disease experts who evaluate and help chart the course for the future of the Institute’s research programs, approved the Institute’s strategy to expand immunology and integrate systems biology into its research approaches.
On Jan. 1, 2012, Aderem will become President and Stuart will maintain an active role at Seattle BioMed, assuming the title of Founder and President Emeritus and becoming a member of the Seattle BioMed Board of Trustees. Stuart will remain a Full Member, Seattle BioMed’s equivalent to a University Full Professor, with an active research program. During the coming months, Stuart and Aderem – who have been colleagues and collaborators for nearly 20 years – will work side-by-side to plan and implement Seattle BioMed’s expanded research activities as they integrate infectious disease research with the systems biology approach. Each will maintain his own research laboratory and will also continue their respective faculty appointments at the University of Washington.
Adopting systems biology at Seattle BioMed will be greatly enhanced by scientific exchange with ISB. John Aitchison, Ph.D., former Associate Director of ISB and a systems biology pioneer, will also join Seattle BioMed. His primary position will be Director of Integrative Biology at Seattle BioMed, but he will also retain a position at ISB to continue and further develop collaborative research projects. Seattle BioMed and ISB have a long-standing relationship, in keeping with Seattle’s vibrant and interactive life sciences community. “ISB’s upcoming move to the South Lake Union neighborhood, where we located more than seven years ago, provides proximity that makes it even more convenient for scientific interaction,” said Stuart.
Aitchison added that this represents an exciting opportunity. “Over the past decade, ISB scientists have established systems biology as a powerful approach to study biology. Now we can both apply what we have learned to global health and use the unique challenges of infectious disease research to drive new developments in systems biology.”
According to Stuart, bringing Aderem, Aitchison and their research staffs on board to apply this transformative approach to Seattle BioMed’s research will result in further expansion on many fronts. “The addition of new expertise, technologies and new research programs will create interdisciplinary scientific teams to explore the interface between pathogens and the humans that they infect,” he said. “We can more deeply understand the biological mechanisms and processes at the level of complexity at which they exist in the pathogens and their hosts. This enables us to gain new knowledge at a faster rate by taking a more comprehensive approach, which is what systems biology entails.”
Systems biology is a comprehensive approach to understanding the network of biological processes that influence how pathogens function and how people recover from – or succumb to – disease. Markedly different from the study of single genes or proteins, the systems biology approach, which is founded on genomics, was developed using model systems and a wide range of high-tech and computational tools. It is designed to enable researchers to predict the behavior of complex biological systems.
Stuart offered an analogy for the systems biology approach to understanding disease. “Imagine trying to comprehend how a car works by looking only at the tires,” he explained. “Then think about how much better you can understand how a car performs by studying all the parts and how they work together.”
Funding for the first phase of Seattle BioMed’s scientific expansion comes from a $7 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to begin the integration of systems biology and infectious disease. Seattle BioMed will accelerate its fundraising efforts to complete the expansion, with a focus on funding additional recruitments, pilot projects and specialized facilities and technologies.
With his move to Seattle BioMed, Aderem is achieving his goal of marrying his personal interests in global health with his passion for systems biology, a relatively new scientific discipline that he helped launch. A native of South Africa, Aderem grew up in a global health context. “My mom was a physician with an exclusively underprivileged practice,” Aderem explained. “As a child, I accompanied her when she visited patients in the townships and saw, first hand, the effect of poverty on human health.”
As a young adult, he organized township communities to fight for better living conditions, and this led to five years of house arrest by the apartheid regime. These experiences solidified his commitment to tackling diseases of poverty. “I saw the impact of infectious diseases firsthand, and now I’m seeing diseases like HIV and tuberculosis devastate my home country,” he said. “I believe Seattle BioMed is the best place in the world to do infectious disease research. Using systems biology, we’ll have the ability to look at disease causing organisms in ways never before possible.”
Seattle BioMed is the largest independent, non-profit organization in the US focused solely on infectious disease research. Its research provides the foundation for new drugs, vaccines and diagnostics to benefit those who need our help most: the 14 million who will otherwise die each year from infectious diseases, including malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. Founded in 1976, Seattle BioMed currently has nearly 325 staff members. By partnering with key collaborators around the globe, we strive to make discoveries that will save lives sooner. For more information, visit www.seattlebiomed.org.