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Systems Biology Is Hot in Academia, Government

Sept. 13, 2007 |  In 2003, Harvard Medical School created a department of systems biology. This July MIT promoted its biological engineering group to department status, making it the first new MIT department in thirty years. The same month, Duke University announced a $14.5 million grant from the National Institute for General Medical Sciences to establish a “national” systems biology center in the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy.

“I think it’s taking very deep and broad roots. It’s maybe not always for the right reasons... I think there’s a fair amount of repackaging of existing projects into the label systems biology because the systems biology label right now resonates quite well with funding agencies and I think also, to some extent, with industry and foundations,” says ISB co-founder Ruedi Aebersold.

Aebersold adds: “Many leading biologists recognize that their programs have to evolve and they are very frequently evolving in direction of analyzing more complex systems in a more integrated fashion. To do that, they need access to new technologies. My personal view is there is a lot of technology development [still] required.”

Indeed, the hope is that new tools, new SB-savvy researchers, and insightful new research will flow from these programs. Like industry, academia is still experimenting on how best to organize these efforts, but organizational issues aside, the appetite to take bite of the SB pie is clearly growing and is a good example.

A year ago, it was a collaboration among three universities — Basel, Zurich, and ETH Zurich — and funding extended only through ‘07.

“The question was, how should this be long-term sustainable and so then we approached the [Swiss] federal government, which is very responsive, and there was basically two requests from the government. They said they will fund a systems biology initiative if it is a unique — I mean it’s the only life science initiative that is of this scale in the country... And it should be Swiss-wide and not regional,” recalls Aebersold.

“The general principle of Systems X prevailed as the only life science initiative of this size in Switzerland, and there are now seven universities who are part of it. It is now called Systems to indicate the Swiss-wide nature of it and this is now a line item in the federal budget.” If funding is secured, then Aebersold is counting on about 50 million francs per year for systems biology as a line item in the federal budget for the next four years. -- J.R.

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