July 27, 2009

UNM Cancer Center Selected as One of 10 NIH National Centers for System Biology


The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has selected a research team at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center to lead the tenth National Center for Systems Biology in the U.S. with a five-year, $14.5 million grant.

“This grant will bring together people from many different disciplines and backgrounds, including biologists, engineers, mathematicians and physicists at UNM, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories,” said Janet Oliver, PhD and Principal Investigator of the new Center, called the New Mexico Spatiotemporal Modeling Center (STMC). “Together, we expect to develop the new tools needed to understand the dynamic biochemical and spatial events that control the behavior of immune and cancer cells.” Center co-leaders include Drs. Bridget Wilson and Jeremy Edwards from the UNM Cancer Center, Dr. Stanly Steinberg from the UNM Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Dr. William Hlavacek from Los Alamos National Laboratory and Dr. Anup Singh from Sandia National Laboratories.

Systems biology is an emerging field that integrates quantitative measurements, new technologies and computational modeling to answer questions about fundamental biological processes that take place in cells, tissues and organisms. For more than 20 years, Oliver’s team of cell biologists has been studying the locations, interactions and biochemical modifications of the molecules that transmit signals across cell membranes, resulting in better understanding about cell function and new approaches to discover and develop disease-fighting drugs. With advances in cell-imaging technology, Oliver’s research was producing more complex information than biologists alone could analyze. Her team turned to statisticians, mathematicians, engineers and physical scientists and found not only improved understanding from current work but also entirely new approaches for future work.

“We welcome this tenth member of our National Centers for Systems Biology program,” said James Anderson, Ph.D., who oversees systems biology awards at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. “The new center will apply large-scale, multi-disciplinary approaches to understanding how the innate and adaptive immune systems interact, which bears upon debilitating conditions like inflammation, allergies, asthma and cancer. The center is also uniquely positioned to advance women and minorities within the emerging discipline of systems biology.”

Oliver’s combined team will include more than 50 biologists, biophysicists, physicists, mathematicians, engineers and material scientists, and will grow to include more faculty, postdoctoral researchers and students. The program has four primary goals: 1. To determine how cells interact and “talk” to each other, in real-time and space, to better understand what events at the cellular level trigger cancer and other diseases; 2. To train a new generation of interdisciplinary researchers focused on quantitative, systems level analyses of complex biomedical processes; 3. To build and sustain an infrastructure to support systems biology research and training as a long-term area of scientific excellence in New Mexico; and 4. To lead the advancement of women and minorities within the new discipline of systems biology.

“We are thrilled that the NIH chose Dr. Oliver to lead New Mexico’s National Center for Systems Biology,” said Dr. Cheryl Willman, Director and CEO of the UNM Cancer Center. “This is the first and only site to be directed by a woman, and the only such center in this region of the country. It recognizes the biomedical research excellence of our Cancer Center scientists and it hugely expands their ability to collaborate with the superb physical and computational scientists at UNM and in the national labs. We are looking forward to seeing the scientific advances made by Dr. Oliver and her team.”

The primary mission of the National Centers for Systems Biology, which are supported by the National Institutes of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), a branch of the NIH, is to promote institutional development of multidisciplinary research, training and outreach programs that focus on systems-level studies of biomedical phenomena within the NIGMS mission. The ten National Centers are expected to establish themselves as leaders of research and education in systems biology.

The other nine centers in the nation are housed at Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California at Irvine, Jackson Laboratory, Princeton University, the Seattle Institute for Systems Biology, University of Chicago, Duke University and Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

The UNM Cancer Center is the Official Cancer Center of the State of New Mexico, and one of only 64 National Cancer Institute designated cancer centers in the nation. It is home to 85 board-certified oncology physicians representing every cancer specialty and more than 120 research scientists hailing from such prestigious institutions as M.D. Anderson, Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic.

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