Project Cybercell defines convergence
Johanna Dietrich, Special to the Journal
At a time when the province’s biotech industry is fighting to establish a solid commercial biotech industry, its best hope for growth lies in the convergence of biotechnology with information technology, electronics and communications — some of Alberta’s strongest industries.
“It only makes sense that Alberta companies would work together to complement each other’s strengths,” said BioAlberta’s Myka Osinchuk.
“Since Alberta is so strong on the information and communications technology (ICT) side, we can begin to consider what the future opportunities are. There’s lots of potential there.”
Much of Alberta’s computing expertise comes from experience managing data for the energy sector, Osinchuk said. “Billions of bits of information are collected every year, and all of them are sorted and interpreted. Biotech researchers need to do this with their data.”
Project CyberCell, an initiative that recently began at the University of Alberta’s Institute for Biomolecular Design, promises to marry biotech research with information technology, engineering, physics, mathematics, bioinformatics, biophysics, chemistry and biochemistry.
Not only will the project involve researchers from many disciplines, but it will expand on current research being done in the areas of genomics and proteomics.
Genomics involves a complete description of all genes, their functions and organization, and the study of how this organization differs among individuals and species.
All genes contain functional instructions that are carried out by proteins. The study of the relationship of proteins to their functions is called proteomics.
Project CyberCell will look beyond the current “collection phase” of genomics and proteomics information, to examine the dynamic and structural nature of cellular processes at a quantitative level of chemical detail so that a living cell can be recreated computationally.
Essentially, the project aims to develop a “virtual” cell that can be manipulated at different levels of molecular resolution, and that can respond, adapt and evolve to fit its virtual environment.
E. coli will serve as the model that will generate the concepts and technology for extending the cybercell to more complicated cell types and eventually, multi-cellular organisms.
The marriage between bio and info technologies is critical to the success of CyberCell and other projects that involve large amounts of data management and computational analysis, says the director of the U of A’s Institute for Biomolecular Design and Project CyberCell.
“As biochemists we’re good at designing strategies to collect and interpret huge amounts of biological data,” said Mike Ellison, who is also a professor of biochemistry at the U of A.
“On the other hand, IT deals with managing, accessing and interrelating huge amounts of data. From my perspective, why reinvent the wheel?”
Renovations to the 8,000-sq-foot Institute for Biomolecular Research were completed last fall, with $13 million worth of equipment installed.
A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has begun to collect and organize data as the first step in Project CyberCell, Ellison said.
Although qualitative data have been collected by researchers worldwide, the data needed for CyberCell needs to be “quantitative and rigorous.”
“Once we have more funding in place, we’ll be working towards a full staff of about 130 people — principal investigators, graduate students, technicians and research associates.”
Ellison said researchers need to be able to test their predictions computationally, design computational strategies to get the cell to live on a computer, and then test the algorithms to see how closely the cell functions to a real cell.
Researchers eventually will use cybercells to test the potential effects of pesticides or pharmaceuticals on animal or human cells.
“The fear now with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is that we don’t know what the long-term effects might be,” Ellison said. “But with a cybercell, we could add genetic information and see how it reacts. We’d be able to predict the real effects of rearranging or adding the genes based on what we found.”
Realistically, and “if all goes well,” it will take approximately 10 years to complete the E. coli cybercell, Ellison said. Between now and then, however, numerous intermediate discoveries will be able to be commercialized.
“The databases in and of themselves will be of value to researchers everywhere,” he said.
Even with some commercialization throughout the project, Ellison admits that funding such a mammoth undertaking is a challenge.
Eighty per cent of the funding received to date for the Institute has been devoted to CyberCell.
The other 20 per cent is devoted to providing platform technology support to other university research activities related to structural and functional proteomics.
The Institute has received $6 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, $4 million from the Alberta government’s Infrastructure and Intellectual Partnership Program, $4.5 million from the Alberta Science Research Authority, and $4 million from Western Economic Diversification. The U of A has also committed $5 million for new construction.
An application for an additional $22 million in infrastructure support for CyberCell will be made to the Canada Foundation for Innovation later this year. As well, Project CyberCell has been asked to resubmit its application for $50 million over five years to Genome Canada, the federal program set up to establish five world-class genome technology centres across the country.
Genome Canada: www.genomecanada.ca
- At 44 per 1,000 population, Alberta has the highest number of engineers and researchers per capita in Canada.
- Alberta’s industry accounts for 7% of Canada’s biotech firms, generates 9% of the country’s biotech sales, Alberta’s research and development accounts for 8% of the national total and Alberta accounts for 10% of the country’s biotech employment.
- A growth of 50 biotech companies in Alberta over the next 10 years would have the following economic impact: new jobs in the range of 1,500 to 5,000, GDP increase of an amount in the range of $150 to $100 million.
- Alberta ranks fifth in Canada for biotechnology exports.
Sources: BioAlberta and Statistics Canada