Romancing the Genome

The love story that may spark Arizona's New Economy.

As the amount of data is becoming overwhelming, it is also becoming increasingly fragmented. Scientists use a variety of microarray analysis methods, making it difficult for research results generated by one scientist to be immediately compared with what is found at other centers.

NCI-funded studies usually allow individual researchers to control their data and the timing of the release of the information to the public. Most NCI-funded research is for specific diseases and cancers, and the number of tissues examined is relatively small.

The International Genomics Consortium seeks to remedy this problem by studying a very large number of tumors, using a standardized collection process and uniform data presentation.

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Richard Mallery
Richard Mallery

The information will be compiled in a "common language," Mallery says, so that IGC will provide drug companies and other researchers a standardized set of data that can be used to initiate further studies.

Dr. James W. Jacobson, chief of NCI's Technology Development Branch Cancer Diagnosis Program, says IGC's work will be an important contribution to cancer research.

"I think it is going to be a very valuable resource for investigators to go in and mine that data and begin to develop hypotheses and support biological discovery," he says.

In a May editorial, the prestigious journal Nature Genetics lauds IGC's effort. The journal says IGC "represents a marriage between academic centers and industry" that will provide "a powerful resource" for future research.

The question, however, concerns how unique the marriage really is.

At the same time IGC is attempting to launch its project, the National Center for Biotechnology Information is implementing a program with similar goals.

NCBI has begun the Gene Expression Omnibus project to help standardize the microarray analysis data being generated at an ever-increasing rate.

Data generated by the International Genomics Consortium will be included with information collected from research centers in the Gene Expression Omnibus project, says NCBI scientist Alex Lash.

Thus, the highly touted work that IGC intends to do in Arizona will become a subset of a huge mountain of data already being collected elsewhere. It's like another volume in a set of encyclopedias.

IGC's plan is raising critical questions at at least one major genetics research center — at the University of Michigan, where IGC's Trent once worked.

Dr. Samir Hanash, a pediatric oncology professor specializing in the impact of proteins on cancer cells, questions the usefulness of IGC's plan to study 10,000 cancer tumors using microarray technology.

"Right now, this technology is practically available to every lab and every institution," he says. "It's off-the-shelf stuff."

Hanash says he's perplexed as to why IGC is investing so much money and effort in analyzing cancer tissues using only microarray technology.

"Everybody and their brother knows that, if you are looking at cancer, there is no one technology platform that can give you all the answers," he says. "If you are going to the trouble of developing this mammoth structure, it's like operating a restaurant where you are only serving cheeseburgers.

"What is the point? Why don't we have a wider menu?"

Hanash says the pharmaceuticals are already overwhelmed with microarray data that they have collected in their own labs, not to mention the amount of information already publicly available.

The problem with microarray data, he says, is that it generates information that is too unrefined for drug companies to use to make crucial decisions on developing new products.

"When you talk to pharmaceutical companies, they say they are not interested anymore in trying to get very early leads as to what could be potentially targeted for a drug," he says.

Instead, drug companies are becoming more focused on the proteins created by genes and how these proteins impact cancer.

"When you look at where the field is going, it is clear right now that a lot of the best work is in the area of proteins," Hanash says.

E-mails and phones calls requesting interviews with top IGC scientists, including Jeffrey Trent and Scottsdale Healthcare president Max Poll, were not returned. Arizona Cancer Center director Daniel Von Hoff could not be reached.

New Times also attempted on several occasions to interview Grace Colon, IGC's acting chief operating officer. Colon is on loan to IGC from Affymetrix Inc., one of three companies in the world that manufactures microarrays.

IGC's close association with a manufacturer of microarrays may shed light on the question that was bothering Hanash about the consortium's fixation on microarrays.

"This outfit may well become a consumer (of microarrays) as opposed to one that will really further develop any kind of technology," he says. "And it sure beats me what kind of biotechnology that will benefit the state of Arizona will come out of this."

Arizona's political and civic leaders are certainly hoping that Samir Hanash is wrong in his assessment of IGC's potential impact on the state. They are quick to make grand, sweeping — but somewhat ambiguous — statements about their expectations of genomics research in Arizona.

Governor Jane Hull hailed IGC's announcement last month that it wanted to locate in Arizona as a "landmark decision" for the state.

"The arrival of IGC is perhaps the biggest event since after World War II, when Motorola came to town," Hull said, perhaps trying to justify her decision to devote $30 million to genomics while she's cutting the state budget by nearly $1 billion.

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