CONTACT: GARY GALLUZZO
300 Plaza Centre One
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 384-0009; fax (319) 384-0024
Release: Sept. 16, 2002
New UI center helps colleagues 'go pheasant hunting' for genetic causes
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
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
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,"