Penn Receives $1.7 Million to Enhance Global Understanding of Parasitic Genomes

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Media Contact:Jordan Reese | jreese@upenn.edu | 215-573-6604March 25, 2009


PHILADELPHIA -– The University of Pennsylvania has received a $1.7 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help researchers share data and develop tools to fight globally neglected diseases.

The project will be coordinated by David S. Roos, professor in the Department of Biology at Penn, along with Christian Stoeckert in the Department of Genetics and colleagues from the University of Georgia and the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute. A parallel award from the Wellcome Trust will be overseen by investigators at the Sanger Institute, Cambridge University and the University of York, along with Roos.

The two-year Gates Foundation award supports the implementation of genome database resources devoted to kinetoplastid parasites, including the organisms responsible for leishmaniasis, African sleeping sickness and Chagas’ disease.

TriTrypDB.org leverages existing infrastructure to rapidly and economically provide researchers around the world with improved access to genomic-scale datasets. Available information includes complete genome sequences and other data such as comprehensive catalogs of the RNA and protein molecules manufactured by these human and animal pathogens.

The goal of this work is to exploit genomic-scale datasets in a cooperative effort to expedite the development of new treatments and diagnoses for use in the laboratory, clinic and field.

During the past two decades, the Roos laboratory has focused on harnessing modern techniques in cell biology and molecular genetics to investigate parasites’ biology and interactions with their hosts. Roos has also been a leader in computational biology research, working with several international genome projects to develop a variety of bioinformatics resources. For example, the Malaria Parasite Genome Database, PlasmoDB.org, is used on a daily basis by hundreds of researchers around the globe.

Paralleling the Human Genome Project, sequencing the genomes of several kinetoplastid parasites has raised hope for new treatments targeting the devastating diseases they cause. Current options for diagnosis and treatment are limited due to toxicity, drug resistance and other problems. Research efforts have been hampered not so much by a lack of information but by the inability to effectively integrate and mine the wealth of data now becoming available.

“In what may be considered the greatest period of scientific data acquisition in history, improving our understanding of any organism -– including kinetoplastid parasites -- depends on our ability to sort through mountains of data,” said Roos, the E. Otis Kendall Professor of Biology at Penn. “Providing such information to investigators worldwide has been cited as the single highest priority by the community of scientists working to develop new drugs targeting these parasites, in order to benefit the underserved populations that suffer from the diseases they cause.”

The success of genome databases developed by this team of researchers has driven progressive expansion to include multiple pathogen species. The Eukaryotic Genome Database, EuPathDB.org, is one of eight national Bioinformatics Resource Centers supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, facilitating research on a variety of biodefense, malaria and emerging pathogens. The Gates award enables further extension of this effort to encompass kinetoplastid parasites, a significant advance in efforts to improve global health.

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