UK-Cdn consortium commits $95-m to international health research project

From left: Prof. Aled Edwards, chief executive officer of the SGC; Associate Minister for Enterprise, Opportunity and Innovation David Turnbull; Ontario Premier Ernie Eves; U of T President Robert Birgeneau; Ontario Research and Development Challenge Fund Chair Dr. Cal Stiller; Industry Minister Allan Rock; GSK (Canada) President and CEO Paul Lucas; Dr. Cheryl Arrowsmith, scientific director for the SGC Canadian research team; Ontario Genomics Institute President Ronnie Gavsie; Genome Canada President Dr. Martin Godbout; Member of Parliament Tony Ianno; and Dr. Drake Eggleston, vice-president of computational, analytical and structural sciences at GlaxoSmithKline Research and Development. Hidden from view is Dr. Alan Bernstein, President of CIHR

April 3, 2003 -- Unravelling the structure of hundreds of human proteins will be the goal of an ambitious $95 million partnership that brings together British and Canadian health researchers under the direction of an internationally renowned Canadian scientist.

The newly formed Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC) is a three-year initiative led by Canadian scientist Dr. Aled Edwards, a world-leading expert in proteomics and structural genomics research and a University of Toronto professor at the Banting and Best Department of Medical Research. It is the first consortium of its kind, focusing its efforts on determining the three-dimensional structure of more than 350 human proteins. One of the consortium's objectives is to encourage the development of new and improved drugs and other healthcare benefits. It represents the first funding partnership among the U.K.-based research charity the Wellcome Trust, four Canadian research funding organizations (Ontario government's Ontario Research and Development Challenge Fund and Ontario Innovation Trust, Genome Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research) and the global pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline.

Established as a charity, the consortium will operate from research laboratories at the University of Toronto and the University of Oxford. The proteins identified for study by the SGC will have significant relevance to human health and include proteins associated with cancer, neurological disorders and infectious diseases like malaria. Information gleaned from the project will provide insight into the proteins' functions and their role in safeguarding health or increasing susceptibility to disease. The aim of the SGC is to produce the first protein structures by the end of 2003; all protein structures will be released freely into the public domain.

"I am excited by the opportunity to provide protein structures for the global research community," says Professor Aled Edwards, chief executive of the Structural Genomics Consortium. "This will enable scientists to better understand our genetic information and to put the genome to practical use. We are particularly looking forward to collaborating with the biomedical research community to rapidly place the protein structures into a functional context."

Edwards also holds appointments in the Departments of Medical Genetics and Microbiology and Medical Biophysics at the University of Toronto.

"Canada is extremely pleased to lead this outstanding endeavor which seeks to open new avenues for treating deadly diseases and demonstrates the world-class quality of Canadian scientists and researchers," says Allan Rock, Minister of Industry for Canada. "Today's announcement is wonderful news, not only for Canadian and U.K. scientists, but most importantly for patients around the world who will one day benefit from their discoveries."

"Ontario and Canada have a long history of exciting breakthroughs, and today's announcement will ensure that our province continues to be a world leader in research, discovery and innovation," says Ontario Premier Ernie Eves. "Our government is committed to making Ontario a focal point for research, which will lead to a stronger economy, leading-edge health research and improved health services for the people of this province and around the world."

The SGC will utilize the vast resource of the Human Genome Project (HGP), which has given medical researchers and scientists a sequence of the 30,000 to 40,000 genes in the human body. Although genes are frequently associated with disease, biologically speaking they usually exert their influence through the proteins they encode. With the HGP nearing completion, the SGC will move on to the vital next step of exploring the structure and function of proteins, providing information about their role in health and disease.

Professor Jean Thomas, a governor of the Wellcome Trust, says: "This collaborative project is another step in realizing some of the potential of the Human Genome Project. It will focus on a fraction of the proteins that have emerged, selected for their relevance to human health, and is consistent with the trust's mission. The structural insights should provide underpinning for drug design and will also lead to advances in understanding of the basic biology of these proteins. This venture is a natural progression for the trust, whose commitment to sequencing the human genome is extending to related areas to ensure translation of this information into human health benefits."

The Wellcome Trust and GlaxoSmithKline Research and Development initiated the project and will contribute £18 million and £3 million, respectively, to the consortium, totalling approximately $52.2 million (Cdn). Genome Canada and the Ontario government's Challenge Fund are each contributing $15 million, with the Ontario Innovation Trust providing $7.2 million and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, $6 million.

"In an era of increasingly complex scientific research, international collaboration involving partners from both the public and private sectors is, we believe, an essential and innovative approach to expand our knowledge," says Dr. Martin Godbout, president and chief executive officer of Genome Canada. "We are extremely proud to be associated with the Wellcome Trust, GSK and our Canadian partners in this consortium led by a dynamic Canadian scientist, Aled Edwards. We anticipate this international partnership will open up competitive space for biotech and pharmaceutical companies, increasing the likelihood of success in developing new products for unmet medical needs."

Funds from Genome Canada will be flowing through the Ontario Genomics Institute, one of five genome centres across Canada working in partnership with Genome Canada to support national genomics research and the focus of genomics and proteomics research in Ontario.

"This consortium, being led by a young Canadian scientist, is a major and exciting 'first' in health research," says Dr. Alan Bernstein, president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. "This Canadian and United Kingdom collaboration will enable all researchers around the world to have access to important structural information on proteins involved in health and disease. The Structural Genomics Consortium is a great example of international scientific cooperation to further global efforts to improve human health."

Dr. Drake Eggleston, vice-president of computational, analytical and structural sciences at GlaxoSmithKline, commented: "GSK is delighted to partner with the Wellcome Trust and Canada's leading research funding agencies to increase the speed at which vital protein structures are made available to the scientific community. The availability of detailed 3D protein structures provides important insight for drug discovery and accelerates the speed at which we can find new treatments for patients who need them."

"This is truly a remarkable partnership that will further science and medical discovery on both sides of the Atlantic," says Professor Robert J. Birgeneau, president of the University of Toronto. "I congratulate the Wellcome Trust, GlaxoSmithKline, Genome Canada, the provincial government and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research for their exceptional leadership and support of this project. In particular, I want to single out Aled Edwards whose vision and expertise have led to the creation of this outstanding Canadian-British consortium - its research will profoundly impact the future of medical science."

Janet Wong is a news services officer with the department of public affairs.

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