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Grant aids MIT systems biology

Human health is dependent on complex biological circuits that control everything from the development of organs to cancer. Now a five-year, $16 million grant from the National Institutes of Health will aid MIT efforts to better understand those circuits through analysis and computational modeling of overall systems rather than individual components.

The grant from the NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences is part of an NIH initiative launched last year to create Centers of Excellence in Complex Biomedical Systems Research. It will establish the MIT Center of Excellence in Cell Decision Processes (CDP), which will be part of a larger program at MIT, the MIT Computational and Systems Biology Initiative (CSBi).

CSBi is a campus-wide research and education program that builds on MIT's strengths in computer science, biology, cancer research, environmental health, biological and chemical engineering and microsystems research to create a multidisciplinary effort in systems biology.

Said President Charles M. Vest, "These far-sighted grants from NIH provide critical support for an evolving new approach to life science, bringing scientists, engineers and computer experts together to develop an understanding of complex cellular systems. The interplay of sophisticated experimental measurements with advanced computational modeling will advance our basic understanding of living systems and ultimately aid the transfer of that knowledge to medical practice."

"Quantitative models refined through iterative cycles of experimentation and computation will reveal how biological circuits function under normal circumstances and how they go awry in disease," said Peter Sorger, associate professor of biology and co-chair of CSBi with Bruce Tidor, associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and the Biological Engineering Division. Sorger will direct the new CDP center, which will involve research groups in five MIT departments jointly studying the signaling events that control cell death, or apoptosis, in humans. CDP is the largest of five CSBi core research projects.

"Biology will impact engineering in the 21st century much the same way that physics and chemistry did during the 20th century," said Professor John Guttag, head of EECS. Professor Robert Sauer, head of the Department of Biology, believes that "the emerging field of systems biology will play a critical role in shaping the future of the biology department at MIT."

"Systems biology will have a profound impact on biomedical research, opening new avenues for diagnosing and treating a broad range of common human diseases," said Brigitta Tadmor, CSBi executive director. In collaboration with industry, CSBi seeks to make MIT pre-eminent in exploring both the basic and practical applications of this emerging field.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 17, 2003.

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