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Release: Jan. 21, 2003

UI bioinformatics center signs five-year, $1.5 million contract with Alcon Research, Ltd.

The Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology (CBCB), a joint enterprise of the University of Iowa College of Engineering and the Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine, has signed a five-year, $1.5 million contract with Alcon Research, Ltd. of Ft. Worth, Tex., a leading ophthalmic pharmaceutical research company, for two projects to help scientists better understand glaucoma, a leading cause of blindness worldwide.

Thomas Casavant, CBCB director and professor of electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering, says that the two projects represent an interdisciplinary effort to identify the causes of glaucoma, which will lead to better diagnosis and treatment of the disease.

The first project, whose principal investigator is Terry Braun, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and ophthalmology and visual sciences, involves developing a novel bioinformatics system to identify potential glaucoma therapeutic targets and to accelerate mutation screening of glaucoma candidate genes. This new system will annotate and manage all gene-associated data, help identify and prioritize glaucoma candidate genes and identify potential therapeutic targets.

Casavant says that the project's interdisciplinary, collaborative team, located at the UI and at Alcon, has the necessary expertise in human molecular genetics, bioinformatics and ocular cell and molecular biology, as well as access to a large pool of patients to screen for glaucoma mutations. "The unique opportunity is to use our cumulative knowledge and experience of identifying differentially expressed genes and finding mutations to build an expert bioinformatics system that accesses heterogeneous data, extending current techniques with unique software automation," he says.

The second project, whose principal investigator is Dr. Beverly Davidson, professor of internal medicine, involves gene transfer to discover and characterize pathways involved in human glaucoma. Project goals include developing viral vectors for expressing normal and/or mutant genes thought to be involved in glaucoma so that their function can be studied in cell and tissue culture. These viral vectors will be used to validate glaucoma candidate genes and potential new therapeutic targets in the tissues and cells associated with glaucoma. These experiments could help form the basis for future human glaucoma gene therapy.

The relationship between the University of Iowa and Alcon Research, Ltd. dates back to a 1993 collaboration with the UI’s Molecular Ophthalmology Laboratory (MOL), directed by Dr. Edwin Stone, which was extended in 1998 to include the Coordinated Laboratory for Computational Genomics (CLCG).

“This has been a terrific example of a very successful, long-term collaboration between academic and industry scientists. We have common goals and complement each other’s expertise, which will lead to the discovery of better ways for diagnosing and treating glaucoma,” says Dr. Abbot Clark, Sr., director of Glaucoma Therapeutic Target Research at Alcon.

The CBCB is a high-performance computational and informational resource uniquely designed to help researchers learn about the molecular and genetic bases of human disease. In addition, the CBCB is working to facilitate development of 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. The center includes 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 other units, including the UI Carver Center for Comparative Genomics 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.

An outgrowth of numerous existing efforts in the fledgling area of bioinformatics, the CBCB builds upon over seven years of collaboration between the Carver College of Medicine and the College of Engineering in the use 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.

Alcon Research Ltd. is an affiliate of Alcon, Inc. (NYSE: ACL), the world’s leading eye care company. Alcon, which has been dedicated to the ophthalmic industry for more than 50 years, develops, manufactures and markets pharmaceuticals, surgical equipment and devices, contact lens care solutions and other vision care products that treat diseases, disorders and other conditions of the eye.