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$1.82 million in grants means that 'we can afford bigger dreams'

Genomics Centre is taking shape

by Sylvain Comeau

Concordia's genomics project continues to gather steam with the recent announcement that the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) is contributing $920,000.

The money from the CFI, a federal granting agency, will be matched by the province of Quebec for a total of $1,840,000 to establish the BioChem Pharma Genomics Facility, the lab component of the Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics.

"We're very excited because this level of funding is rare in fundamental research," said Biology Professor Reginald Storms, a member of the research team behind the project. "The initial funding (from Canadian pharmaceutical giant BioChem Pharma) gave us the momentum to obtain CFI funding."

Centre director and Biology Professor Adrian Tsang said, "One of the criteria for applying to the CFI is industry support of your research, so we wouldn't be where we are now without the boost from our corporate partner."

BioChem Pharma provided the seed money for the Centre -- $1 million over five years, plus $100,000 from Chair Francesco Bellini -- through a donation to Concordia's Capital Campaign, announced in October 1997. The total funding for the project to date is $2.94 million.

The team offers several theories as to why it has been so blessed. Tsang said they have been able to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack.

"All other genomics centres in the country are focusing on diseases. We stood out from the crowd because we chose a niche. Our centre will be looking at model microorganisms and organisms of economic importance. These organisms are crucial to basic research and the food and pharmaceutical industries. For example, yeast is used to make beer, wine and bread, while many fungi are important to agriculture."

Genomics is the science of sequencing and studying the function of genes within the chromo-
somes of an organism's cells. Model organisms are so called because they tell researchers much about other, similar organisms. Many of their genes have human homologues; in other words, a similar gene present in humans.

One of the most closely studied such organisms in recent years has been yeast, a valuable model for human cells because it is a eukaryotic organism (it has a cell with a nucleus).

"This is going to be basic, fundamental research," Biochemistry Professor Paul Joyce said, "but because of the genetic linkages, what we learn about how yeast cells work will tell us a lot about how all other types of cells work, including human cells. Similarly, certain mutated genes in model organisms may help explain how mutant genes cause disease in humans."

The research is likely to move toward specific applications when it begins to yield promising results. "When their research produces breakthroughs, then we may see opportunities to enter into formal agreements with some of their teams," said Gervais Dionne, Biochem Pharma's executive vice-president of research and development.

The facility, which will be housed either in a new building at Loyola or on the 10th floor of the Henry F. Hall Building, will include a "wet lab" for genomic research on gene function and a bioinformatics lab. Bioinformatics is a dynamic new branch of computer science, wedded to genomics because it is concerned with meeting the growing need to store, process and analyze biological data.

For computer scientists on the team, like Greg Butler and Clement Lam, solving the problem of processing genetic data will advance computer technology and theory.

"Working with biologists and biochemists to develop better ways of processing the enormous amounts of data involved in these experiments is a great way to undertake computer science research," Butler said.

According to Computer Science Professor Clement Lam, "We would continue to work on these problems whether there was money or not. The difference with this money is that we can afford bigger dreams."

Copyright 1999 Concordia's Thursday Report.