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Systems Biology Is Hot in Academia and Government

Sept. 12, 2007 | A year or so ago, Harvard Medical School created a department of systems biology (SB). This July, MIT promoted its biological engineering group to department status, making it the first new MIT department in 30 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. So I think there’s a fair amount of repackaging in – 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 Reudi Aebersold, Institute for Systems Biology co-founder, and now a leader in Switzerland’s national Systems X.CH program to foster SB.

“What I think is also true and probably more significant, is that many leading biologists recognize that their programs have to evolve, and they are very frequently evolving in the 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,” says Aebersold.

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 a bite of the SB pie is clearly growing, and Systems X.CH 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 sustainable long-term and so then we approached the federal government, which is very responsive, and there were basically two requests from the government. They said they would fund a systems biology initiative if it is 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.

“What’s happened is there were discussions. 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 X.CH to indicate the Swiss-wide nature of it and this is now a line item in the federal budget. It just passed the first chamber and the second chamber will vote in September. If that goes through, then there will be new federal money in the range of 50 million francs per year for systems biology as a line item in the federal budget for the next four years. So it’s going actually very well.”

It will be interesting to see in five years what all the academic and government lab activity produces.

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