UM aims for lead in gene research

Pioneering scientist to head new facility at medical school

April 06, 2007|By Chris Emery and Jonathan Bor | Chris Emery and Jonathan Bor,SUN REPORTERS

One of the world's leading experts on the DNA of microorganisms that harm humans will head a new research institute at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, an addition that promises to thrust the university to the front ranks of the movement to apply genetics to medicine.

Claire M. Fraser-Liggett, 51, a pioneering geneticist known for mapping the genomes of deadly microbes such as anthrax and cholera, will head the new center and bring seven or eight top scientists with her.

School officials and outside experts agreed that Fraser-Liggett's prominence should help the medical school attract talented scientists and compete for research funding.

"We are fortunate to have recruited a world-class researcher," said Dr. E. Albert Reece, the dean of the medical school. "We believe we will in short time have the leading center in the nation if not in the world."

Medical school officials declined to say how much she would be paid - an apparent violation of a court ruling requiring the university to disclose its salaries. Nor would they say what the center's budget would be.

Fraser-Liggett is expected to move to the medical school by the end of the month, leaving her post as director of the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) in Rockville. Several faculty and a number of support staff from TIGR are expected to join her.

The University of Maryland's Genomic Institute will be officially created over the summer and will employ 80 to 100 researchers and staff, officials said.

The institute will be the largest initiative on the Baltimore campus since the creation of the Institute of Human Virology a decade ago, said James B. Kaper, the head of microbiology at the medical school.

That initiative drew Dr. Robert C. Gallo, the virologist who first identified HIV as the cause of AIDS.

The new institute will be housed at BioPark II, a university research facility under construction west of Martin Luther King Boulevard and expected to be completed in the fall.

"It's a very significant event in the history of the school of medicine," Kaper said of the new center. "It gives us a tremendous amount of expertise in this field."

Fraser-Liggett is a prolific researcher known for leading teams that sequenced the complete DNA of more than two dozen organisms, including anthrax, chlamydia and cholera. She also helped pioneer the comparison of DNA from different species to better understand how they evolved - a field known as comparative genomics.

She founded TIGR along with J. Craig Venter, her ex-husband. Their researchers were the first to sequence the entire genome of a free-living organism, the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae.

Venter later founded Celera Genomics, a private biotech company that gained fame in 1998 when Venter declared he planned to sequence the entire human genome - ahead of the publicly funded Human Genome Project. Both groups published their findings in 2001.

Fraser-Liggett said working at a medical school would enable her to expand the scope of her research to study the genetic relationships between humans and microbes.

"The foundation has been laid for taking the information and using it to advance human health," she said. Among other uses, such information could help researchers develop vaccines and therapies to combat biological agents released in a terrorist attack.

Fraser-Liggett said she also hopes the institute will be a leader in metagenomics, a nascent discipline whose researchers map the DNA of all the microorganisms in an area of the body to determine how they interact.

Microbes are found all over the human body, where they live in communities that are often benign or even helpful - such as the bacteria that help with digestion. Scientists theorize, however, that disease might disrupt this balance, and they want to learn more about it.

Recent studies have suggested that the microbial composition of a person's gut might change when they are obese. Understanding those relationships might lead to new ways to treat obesity. Likewise, diseases might cause alterations in microbial communities in other regions of the body.

Jef Boeke, director of the Johns Hopkins High Throughput Biology Center, said such a focus could help attract research funding and researchers.

The National Institutes of Health, he noted, has listed microbiome research - another name for metagenomics - as an important target for investment.

"It's a great thing for Baltimore," Boeke said. "We have never had a big microbial genomics effort here."

He noted that Hopkins' highly regarded research efforts focus more on the human genome and said the new, complementary University of Maryland institute across town has the potential to be on par with other top-notch centers.

The largest of these, he said, is the Broad Institute in Boston, a collaboration between Harvard and MIT. Washington University in St. Louis and Baylor University in Texas also have large genomic research operations.

Fraser-Liggett's husband, Dr. Stephen Liggett, works at Maryland's school of medicine, where he studies the molecular biology of the heart.

The couple, who live in Clarksville, are collaborating on research into human cold viruses.

"It's nice that it worked out with Maryland," Fraser-Liggett said. "It will certainty be nice to eat lunch together."

Neither Reece nor Fraser-Liggett would disclose the center's funding. Nor would a medical school spokesman say how much Fraser-Liggett would be paid. In 2004, Maryland's Court of Appeals required the university to disclose the total compensation of public employees.

That case involved a request by The Sun for the compensation of the University of Maryland's two highest-paid coaches.

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