Editor’s note: Allan Maurer’s review of the region’s genomics centers is part of Local Tech Wire’s review of high-tech in RTP and North Carolina done in partnership with Raleigh Metro Magazine.The unraveling of the human genome is hardly the entire focus of genomic research. In fact, the Triangle is fast becoming a hotbed for the ever increasing assault on a wide variety of genes that are the citadels of nature’s research.

All three major North Carolina research universities — The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University in Durham and NSCU in Raleigh — have established genomics centers. But each university is attacking on separate fronts.

And all have exciting stories to talk about — like feeding the world.

Dr. Charles Opperman, one of the founders and directors of North Carolina State University’s Genomics Research Laboratory, is one of the leaders. And he’s excited about the prospects of NCSU’s agricultural focus.

“Most of us in agricultural biology got into it because we wanted to feed the world,” he says. “I find myself in an odd position being a professor. When I got into it, I just figured I’d be in the Peace Corps.”

Instead, Opperman, who stepped down as a director of the GRL in July but remains on its advisory board, helps conduct research that may feed millions more people than any work he could have done in the Peace Corps. The idea of feeding the world still “drives a lot of us.”

At NCSU, bionformatics links vet, agriculture, forestry

NCSU chose a unique niche — cutting-edge research in veterinary medicine, agriculture and forestry, combined with the university’s expertise in bioinformatics.

NCSU boasts the largest bioinformatics degree program in the nation and is a world leader in analyzing large amounts of genetic information at its Genomics Research Laboratory. By 2004, NCSU will have invested $130 million in its genomics research programs since 1999.

In addition to the GRL, the school’s genomics efforts encompass its forest biotechnology and fungal genomics labs (FGL). Already, FGL researchers have described the genome of the rice blast fungus, a major threat to worldwide food supplies. The fungus destroys enough rice annually to feed 60 million people. Some strains of the fungus attack wheat and barley. The new knowledge, says Opperman, “might lead to new types of host (rice or other grain) resistance or help design chemicals specifically deadly to this one pest, but otherwise environmentally harmless.”

By studying a biological system such as the rice blast and its interaction with its hosts, Opperman explains, “you might notice things you can exploit in a more environmentally friendly fashion than we do now with some of our pesticide systems.”

Calling the GRL “one of the crown jewels of the university,” he says, “It speeds up discovery. But we’re not in the business of making pesticides. We’re in the business of providing the raw material on for a company to market a new product,” he says. “It’s a great partnership when you think about it. The company licenses intellectual product from the university. They create jobs, so it’s good for the state, and they make money on it, but it’s also more environmentally friendly so it’s good for the consumers. It sounds very Pollyanish, but I think that’s the way you have to look at it.”

At NCSU’s forest biotechnology lab, director Dr. Ron Sederoff says that genomics sciences can help improve environmental in addition to human and agricultural health. “If we can bioengineer fast-growing, high yield trees with special features and grow them as crops for human needs, we can leave the natural forests alone,” says Sederoff. “It’s doable and will be profitable in many ways.”

Other research at NCSU focuses on using animal models to help researchers seek cures for human diseases such as HIV/AIDS and muscular dystrophy.

UNC Genomics Center Unites Departments

UNC has seen benefits other than in the lab.

“The challenge and the fun of the genomics center is that it integrates all of the disciplines on campus,” says Terry R. Magnuson, chairman of the school of medicine’s department of genetics.

Those cooperating in the new Carolina Center for Genome Sciences include the schools of dentistry, informational and library science, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, public health, even the College of Arts, Sciences, and the school of law.

Magnuson says that while the UNC Genomics Center works across many departments, it has three broad areas of specialization: experimental genomics, computational biology, and visualization tools.

UNC’s efforts are funded by a $245 million investment over the next decade, including a $25 million anonymous gift. Four new buildings that will house genetic research, partly supported by a state bond referendum, will cost $550 million, and 40 new faculty positions are being added at a cost of $50 million from recurring funds.

The $64 million Medical Biomolecular Research Building now under construction will house the Carolina Center for Genome Sciences.

Magnuson notes that the University has hired about half the 43 members of his department since he came on board in July 2000. “We’ve started many new research programs and directions,” he says.

One of those researchers, hired from Sanford University in California, examines breast cancer tumors. He looked at the clinical outcome from 75 different tumors and discovered that while they had previously been identified as the same type, molecular profiling divided them into subgroups. “The results were amazing,” says Magnuson. Patients with one type of sub group tumor did “wonderfully and lived,” while those with another sub group “didn’t live two years, with others somewhere in between.”

One major effort of UNC’s program looks at disease. “We’ve made good progress on single gene defects,” Magnuson says.

Another major thrust of the university’s research examines not just genomics, but also proteomics. Genes make proteins, and the proteins make the body and its processes. The interaction between genes, proteins and disease states is enormously complex. “The goal in the future and of the approach we’re putting in place is to figure this out,” Magnuson explains.

But the center can’t succeed alone. Magnuson insists that establishing partnerships with pharmaceutical companies, which already chip in to support student stipends in the bioinformatics graduate program, are essential to its success. “Partnerships with biotech and pharmaceutical companies are a critical component,” he says. “They bring a level of complexity to the table a university can’t achieve by itself.”

Magnuson says the North Carolina Biotechnology Center has often been instrumental in facilitating relationships between the university and corporate partners. In particular, he says, “Their focus on the supercomputing center’s biogrid is very important and something no one university could do alone.” The biotech center hopes to have a test bed biogrid up and running by spring. It would help researchers store, share, and manipulate the huge amounts of genomic, proteomic, and other biological data coming from their labs and computers daily.

Duke Center examines ethical and legal issues

Duke University’s $200 million Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy is the most ambitious in its history.

Duke conducts hundreds of genetics and genomics studies at its network of centers, including the center for human genetics, center for genetic technology and the programs for cardiovascular genetics and cancer genetics and centers for disease models and computational biology.

Researchers at the human genetics center, for instance, have discovered specific genes that make people susceptible to disorders such as autism, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The disease model center, which is completing a $41 million research building, has begun a major effort to identify genes that contribute to cocaine addiction.

Dr. John Harer, vice provost for academic affairs and one of the Genomics Institute’s planners says, “The scientific challenges of the genomics era are far different from those of the past. They require a mix of expertise.”

Duke’s unique genome sciences and policy institute tackles the tough moral, ethical, and legal issues the research raises. Those include issues such as what diseases should be priorities for research? Should we be manipulating reproductive cells – sperm and eggs – which could effect coming generations? Should corporations be allowed to patent genes? What are patient’s rights to their own DNA or tissues, particularly if they hold the key to treating a disease?

The center convenes scholars from the university and elsewhere in law, medicine, ethics, theology, the humanities and social sciences and public policy to explore the social implications of genome science. It sponsors short courses, seminars, publications, deliberations and other efforts.