October 29, 2002

Grad Biotech Company Receives $2 Million to Study

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A local biotechnology company founded by Cornell graduate students has been awarded a $2 million federal grant for computational cancer research.

The Ithaca-based company Gene Network Sciences (GNS) was founded two years ago to explore the applications of computer technology to biological systems. Since then it has produced the world’s largest simulation of a human cancer cell and hopes to apply this technology to streamlining the drug discovery process, currently a costly and time-consuming endeavor.

“We are currently focused on the genetic circuitry of the cell, and we want to use this information to test medicines by simulating the effect that drugs have on this complex biochemical circuitry,” said Colin Hill grad, co-founder and president of GNS and a Cornell graduate student in physics.

The current failure rate for a new drug is 80 percent and each drug can cost $700 to $800 million to develop, according to Hill.

“Simulation would allow us to identify the correct proteins and genes to be hit with a drug,” Hill said.

He further explained how testing drugs on a virtual cell could also be used to eliminate some drug candidates, leading to a lower failure rate.

“Our in-silico models have the potential to shave three to four years off the drug discovery process, resulting in a cost savings of tens of millions of dollars,” said Iya Khalil, Ph.D. ’00 in a GNS news release. Khalil is also a co-founder of GNS.

The grant, awarded by the federal government’s Advanced Technology Program (ATP), will be administered over the next three years and will enable the company to more comprehensively test its simulations against observations in the lab. The ATP gives annual grants to high risk, pioneering industries that have the potential for high returns.

“It’s remarkable that a student going after a physics Ph.D., which is a full time job in itself, is able to start his own biotech company at the same time,” said Prof. Steven Strogatz, theoretical and applied mechanics, a member of GNS’s scientific advisory board.

While understanding the nature of living systems has long been a primary pursuit of mainstream science, the novelty of GNS’s approach of simulating life on a computer has met with mixed response.

“A lot of people still think we’re crazy and that this can’t be done. There is the feeling that biological systems are not amenable to mathematical description. In the past, physics has ignored living systems because of their overwhelming complexity, but now we have chaos theory, statistical mechanics, and fast supercomputers to aid us. We also have much better data. There is no reason why we can’t start putting the pieces together,” Hill said.

Recent advances in biological research have yielded a wealth of information to scientists, but making sense of such large amounts of data can prove problematic.

“There is so much information coming out of biology experiments and the thinking is that computing can be applied to understanding what the data means. The question becomes which genes are connected to which and how,” Strogatz said.

The holistic approach of computer modeling could help scientists make sense of the human genetic code.

“It was hoped that the human genome sequence would let us cure all of these diseases but we still don’t know how these things work and interact as an integrated system. What’s needed is a framework to tie all of this data together so we can rapidly explore the multitude of data-driven hypotheses,” Hill said.

Hill hopes that his company, which integrates data from the human genome sequence and other genomic technologies into its models of biological systems, will provide just such a framework.

“The grant will be used primarily for our wet lab facilities where work is done with human cell lines and eventually primary human tissue to generate the data used to further refine and validate our simulation,” Hill said.

The ATP award, one of 40 awarded during this year’s competition, is the second major grant the company has received this year. Last month, GNS was awarded a $100,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to further its colon cancer simulation, and the company has raised over $1.7 million from private investors, including $125,000 from the Cornell Big Red Venture Fund of the Johnson Graduate School of Management.

“It’s exciting that students can get involved so early on and that it’s happening right here in Ithaca,” Strogatz said.

Hill said he welcomes undergraduate involvement.

“These funds will help us make Ithaca a world leader in systems biology,” Hill said. “We are also looking for bright, committed interns who have interests in the areas of molecular biology, physics, or computer science.”

Archived article by Philip Lane