Irish Govt invests €15m in new systems biology research centre

15 Sep 2009

The Irish Government is to invest €14.8m over the next five years in a new Systems Biology Ireland Research Centre led by UCD that will make Ireland a leader in the consolidation of computing, maths and biology and could prove vital to attracting foreign direct investment in the years ahead.

The new computing centre could also make Ireland a vital contributor in the fight against cancer and the race to find a cure for the deadly disease.

“Today’s investment establishing Systems Biology Ireland is clear evidence of the Government’s ongoing commitment to further enhancing Ireland’s scientific base to aid our economic recovery.” the Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation, Conor Lenihan TD, explained.

Systems Biology is a powerful new way to use the strength of computers and mathematics to understand biology. It seeks to unravel the complexities of cells through the use of models that predict biological behaviour.

“The research being undertaken will enable quicker and better treatments of a range of medical conditions, including various cancers, and should allow for better therapies to be delivered more effectively to patients.

The new research centre is also being supported through the significant contribution of industry partners who include Ark Therapeutics, Hewlett Packard, Servier, Agilent Technologies, Siemens Ireland and Protagen AG. The Systems Biology SFI CSET will involve 69 highly skilled personnel working on the research programme.

“I am very excited by the potential economic and societal benefits likely to accrue to Ireland from the research being undertaken by the Systems Biology SFI CSET,” Lenihan said.

“It is one of the critical emerging areas in the life sciences worldwide. Ireland is now very well placed to become a world leader in this field, given the very strong foundation we have here in the pharmaceutical and IT sectors.

“It should greatly assist the IDA to attract further high-end foreign direct investment and also allow Irish SMEs to grow. This centre, with its deep-rooted academic – industry partnership, encapsulates the essence of what our smart economy should and can be. ”

The director of the new SFI CSET, Prof Walter Kolch, outlined the potential of systems biology to speed up research and help target therapies to particular patient types.

“Systems biology takes a holistic view of the organism,” Kolch explained. “It looks at the processes rather than the single components of a cell or a gene. Our research is unique in that we work with stem cells but the outcomes of our research will feed into a global effort to provide better therapies for cancer patients.

“Our work will help speed up the experimentation process, thereby reducing by years the time it takes to develop a new drug therapy,” Kolch added.

“As the pipeline for new therapeutic drugs becomes constricted it is recognised that a fresh approach to understanding disease is timely,” the director general of Science Foundation Ireland, Prof Frank Gannon said.

“The convergence of computer modelling and the study of the biological system brings new challenges and opportunities. This latest SFI CSET will add to the skill-base that is required for the pharmaceutical companies of the future in Ireland.”

Systems Biology Ireland is working with a range of industry partners to develop new technologies for biomedical research and will continue to develop the links with industry to harness the State’s investment in the programme.

“Life sciences customers will ultimately better understand the disease processes and will be able to develop new therapeutic treatments from the Systems Biology Ireland’s research program,” said David Medina, executive lead, Worldwide Life Sciences and Pharma Segment, HP.

“As a result of HP and SBI’s collaboration, vast amounts of data can now be affordably collected, stored, analysed and applied from different sources on HP Extreme Data Storage technology.”

By John Kennedy

Photo: Director General of Science Foundation Ireland, Prof Frank Gannon, with Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation, Conor Lenihan TD, and Prof Walter Kolch, Director, Systems Biology Ireland, at the Royal College of Physicians in Dublin.

Photo by Conor McCabe of Jason Clarke Photography.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years