New NIH Bioinformatics Center
Ted Agres,
Freelance Writer in Washington, D.C.

Recognizing the growing importance of computational and information sciences to biology, the National Institutes of Health is establishing a new Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology (CBCB). The new center is designed to support research and training in areas that merge biology with computer sciences, engineering, mathematics, and physics. "The future of the biological sciences will be driven by advances in bioinformatics and computational biology," says Marvin Cassman, Director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). The new Center, to be located with the NIGMS, will handle this Institute's projects.

While the new center will primarily focus on developing and coordinating bioinformatics programs within NIGMS, "There's a lot going on that has strong computational elements" throughout NIH, Cassman says. "A large number of these [research activities] will stay where they are within the divisions - cell biology and biophysics, genetics, and developmental biology, and so on. But we want to be sure that there's an awareness of the connections between all of these," he explains.

Toward this end, the new center will coordinate the Biomedical Information Science and Technology Initiative Consortium (BISTIC), a Committee comprised of senior representatives from each of the NIH institutes and centers as well as representatives from other Federal agencies that have interest in the field. CBCB will also fund training and fellowship grants and sponsor workshops, courses, and meetings. The first awards in a pre-doctoral training program in bioinformatics and computational biology will be announced shortly and a post-doctoral training program will be announced next year. "This is why we need coordination," says Cassman. "It's a huge area, an important area. It's relevant to all our programs at the Institute. We have to have a central place that will really operate as the focus for activities in this area."

CBCB's birth comes quickly after the creation of a totally new NIH body - the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB). The new Institute's mission is to centralize and coordinate fundamental research applying engineering and imaging science to biological processes, disorders, and diseases. Proposed FY2002 funding for NIBIB is $40.2 million. Last month, Donna J. Dean was named the NIBIB's Acting Director while the search for a Permanent Director got underway. For the past three years, Dean has been a senior scientific advisor in the NIH Director's Office.

"While dedicating an institute to medical technologies...may seem novel for the NIH, it is truly a reflection of what science is today - and where science will be taking us tomorrow," explains Ruth Kirschstein, Acting NIH Director. Her comments, however, seem to be making a virtue out of necessity. Last year, the NIH strongly opposed the NIBIB's creation, the product of a Congressional mandate. The NIH had hoped for a Presidential veto, but the White House won out. President Clinton signed the NIBIB into law in December 2000.

NIH invests heavily in bioimaging and bioengineering research. In FY 1999, predating NIBIB, NIH awarded about $447 million for bioimaging research and about $697 million for bioengineering research through all the various Institutes and Centers. In the coming year, "I expect that the majority of the activity in other institutes [than NIBIB] will continue," Kirschstein says, "while NIBIB will support important basic and crosscutting research in the bioengineering and imaging sciences."