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Release: Sept. 16, 2002

New UI center helps colleagues 'go pheasant hunting' for genetic causes of disease

To hear him tell it, engineering professor Tom Casavant can't wait to help his fellow University of Iowa researchers go pheasant hunting.

But the "pheasants" in Casavant's world are genetic markers for human diseases and the "help" he offers is the new Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology (CBCB).

The CBCB is a high-performance computational and informational resource uniquely designed to help researchers learn about the genetic basis of human disease and other biomedical phenomena. In addition, the CBCB is working to develop interdisciplinary programs of study to teach professionals the skills of biomedical problem solving using modern computational methods. The center is jointly administered by the UI College of Engineering and the Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine and supported by the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Office of the Provost. The center will include researchers from the Colleges of Engineering, Medicine, Liberal Arts and Sciences, Public Health, Business, Pharmacy, Dentistry, Nursing and the Graduate College. Also, the CBCB will work to cooperate with numerous other centers including the UI Carver Center for Comparative Genomics, Center for Statistical Genetics Research and the UI Center for Macular Degeneration and other research support units such as Information Technology Services Research Technologies and the Carver College of Medicine's DNA Core Facility.

"This is interdisciplinary work taken to the second power," says Casavant, CBCB director and professor of electrical and computer engineering, as well as biomedical engineering. "We are charged with bringing together people from nearly all the UI colleges, and we hope to bridge cultural divides separating the life sciences, applied medicine, mathematics, computer science, statistics, engineering, library and information science and a myriad or other fields. The CBCB will play a leading role in expanding the work across campus, making the boundaries as transparent as possible for medical researchers in such fields as autism, hypertension, cystic fibrosis, cancer, and vision-related diseases."

Casavant is careful to point out that the CBCB is a skilled guide and time-saving resource, but individual researchers still need to conduct their own hunts.

"It's like pheasant hunting. A guide can tell you which fields to hunt, but then you still must walk the fields," he says.

For example, Casavant points to Dr. Edwin Stone, UI professor of ophthalmology and genetics and director of the Center for Age-Related Macular Degeneration, who is searching for genetic mutations linked to the leading cause of blindness in adult Americans. Stone can conduct his research much faster by combining bioinformatics -- a way of organizing large amounts of data -- with computational biology, which aims to develop accurate computer models of complex bio-medical and cellular processes.

"Using a computer algorithm, we can encode the kinds of questions that Ed used to ask of genes one at a time and ask them of 30,000 genes all at the same time. We're taking many sources of data, merging them, and coming up with a prioritized list of places for researchers to hunt. We won't replace traditional biology and medical research; we'll just try to direct the searchlight better so the researcher can get closer to the solution much faster," Casavant says. "It won't eliminate the need for researchers to walk the fields."

An outgrowth of the College of Engineering's Coordinated Laboratory for Computational Genomics, the CBCB builds upon over seven years of collaboration between the Carver College of Medicine and the College of Engineering in the deployment of applied computational science in the fields of genomics, genetics, molecular biology, and their applications for medical research. Such collaborations have investigated genotyping, genetic linkage analysis, gene mapping and other phenomena and have already attracted more than $35 million in external funding to the University of Iowa.

Casavant says that the CBCB, located within the new Seamans Center for the Engineering Arts and Sciences, is unique and forward-looking in its medical research focus and engineering and medicine collaboration. "The establishment of a focused university-wide center of gravity for bioinformatics and computational biology research strategically positions the university to participate in the information revolution now taking place in the medical and life sciences," he says.