The start of something big
New UC biotech institute to focus on building living systems

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs

08 DEC 2000 | Berkeley scientists on the forefront of new bio- and nanotechnologies - used to engineer artificial tissue, fabricate replacement organs, manipulate the body's genetic code and fight deadly diseases - are poised to accelerate their efforts, with the launch of a new UC institute, funded collaboratively by the state of California and industry.

The new Bioengineering, Biotechnology and Quantitative Biomedical Research Institute is one of three announced for state funding Dec. 7 by Gov. Gray Davis as part of his California Institutes for Science and Innovation (CISI) program. The new institute will bring together top scientists in bioengineering, genetic medicine, molecular and cell biology, mathematics, computer science, chemistry and physics to create powerful tools for attacking complex biological problems.

"These centers of science and innovation will not just be portals to the new economy, but pilots of the new economy," Davis said in a live broadcast from Sacramento to UC San Francisco's Mission Bay campus. "No one knows what breakthroughs will occur. But ... (whether) it's fighting AIDS or cancer, or (finding) new commercial products that will employ thousands of people to power our economy, this initiative will be the start of something very big in California."

Public-private collaboration

The state has pledge $100 million in initial funding for the three UC campuses forming the partnership - $37.5 million for Berkeley, $57.5 million for UCSF and $5 million for UC Santa Cruz. In creating the new institute, the legislature and governor have called for every $1 of state money to be matched with $2 from outside funding, primarily private industry.

If public and private interest is any indication, the time is ripe for the new institute, known as QB3, designed to reap the benefits of California's burgeoning bioeconomy.

More than 200 companies representing "almost every blue chip company in America" have already promised funds or taken steps to set up collaborative teaching and research programs for the three newly announced CISI centers, Davis reported. Their pledges raise the stakes to a nearly three-for-one endeavor, or $3 of outside funding for every $1 from state coffers.

"This is a wonderful partnership between government and the private sector that has both short-term and long-term consequences for the state of California," said Chancellor Robert Berdahl. "Tackling today's most challenging health problems requires scientists and scholars from many fields building upon one another's expertise. The institute gives us an opportunity to do just that...."

The institute's multidisciplinary approach to health science also complements Berkeley's $500 million Health Sciences Initiative, which seeks to advance health science research through collaboration. A new research facility to house 41 principal investigators - to be built on the site of Berkeley's Stanley Hall - will be the first building on campus dedicated to multidisciplinary health sciences research.

"This institute will help us train students who excel in this way of doing health science," Berdahl said of QB3's collaborative approach. "Undergraduate and graduate students alike will be the beneficiaries of this new approach, and they will be given opportunities to work side by side with our faculty."

Research initiatives

Organized around three research and educational themes - bioengineering and biotechnology, structural and chemical biology, and bioinformatics and the analysis of complex biological systems - QB3 will focus on developing techniques for storing and analyzing vast quantities of biological information and using imaging and mathematical modeling to view molecules, cells and single organ systems as part of functional networks. These technologies will allow scientists to understand interactions, predict outcomes and reconstruct parts of living systems in the laboratory.

"From this we are going to gain a new understanding of the human organism and new approaches to the prevention and detection of disease, powerful stimuli for the economy of California," said J. Michael Bishop, chancellor at UCSF, the lead campus in QB3, along with Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz. In addition to devising new imaging methods, artificial tissues and ways of using the explosion of genome data, he said, the institute "will certainly advance technologies that none of us here today would have predicted."

California's 21st century bioeconomy promises to be truly remarkable, Bishop noted. Pharmaceutical and biotechnology spinoffs are prompting a fundamental shift, "a whole new brand of medicine," in America's approach to health care. The strategy is moving from one of early detection and treatment of disease to prevention altogether.

Scientists from UCSF, Berkeley and Santa Cruz cited new early-detection treatments and cures for brain disorders, diabetes and prostate and breast cancer as one of the institute's projects. That effort will seek to develop a way to map the activity of natural enzymes, known as "proteases," used by tumors to spread disease. Another research effort will focus on the molecular motors within the human cell in an attempt to discover effective drugs to fight life-threatening cancers.

With the aid of greatly improved magnetic resonance imaging and innovative computer-assisted analysis, physicians will be able to spot the most prevalent cancers early in their development and treat the diseases more effectively. UC San Francisco, with its strengths in fundamental biological research and disease-specific research, will rely on its Magnetic Resonance Science Center to combine the most detailed anatomical images available with techniques for precisely mapping the telltale signs of chemical activity in tumors.

The institute's collaborators will also draw on an infusion of emerging biotechnologies to fabricate artificial tissue, organs, joints and limbs. Like modern-day alchemists, industry scientists have already commercialized manmade skin and mechanical joints; synthetic organs, blood vessels, cartilage and bone implants can't be far behind.

The two other California Institutes for Science and Innovation announced by Gov. Davis Dec. 7 are the California Nanosystems Institute, at UCLA and UC Santa Barbara, and the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, at UC San Diego and UC Irvine.


CISI news home page

QB3 news home page


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