Citing the need to keep up with a rapidly changing field of science, Canada's principal entity for supporting research in genomics is changing its approach.
On Tuesday, Genome Canada is expected to announce it will spend $15.5-million over the next two years to jump-start the creation of what it calls an "innovation network" by doling out funds to 10 research centres across the country. Matching funds from other public and private sources will bring the initial investment in the network to $31-million. In addition, the centres will compete with one another to divide a $15-million pot earmarked for technology development.
The funding replaces an earlier five-centre model and puts more emphasis on collaboration between centres to avoid building up "silos that cannot talk to each other," said Genome Canada president Pierre Meulien.
The expanded network represents a pivot for the non-profit organization, which channels federal money toward the branch of science that deals with the decoding and analysis of DNA sequences.
When Genome Canada was established in February, 2000, the price tag for sequencing a single human genome was about $100-million. Since then, a revolution in sequencing technology has pushed the price down to just more than $1,000 per genome and the field is increasingly concerned with comparing genetic differences among populations (of humans and many other organisms).
To reflect the change, Dr. Meulien said that the new network will include substantial investments in Canada's capacity to do bioinformatics, which marries computing power with the reams of data now available as genetic sequences accumulate. Analysis of such data has already yielded important breakthroughs in identifying the causes of genetically inherited diseases and in spotting genetically based susceptibilities to more complex maladies such as cancer and diabetes.
"Data generation is getting easier, but in the end you have to interpret and analyze all of that data," said Guillaume Borque, co-director of the Canadian Centre for Computational Genomics, a collaboration between McGill Univeristy and the University of Toronto and one of the new centres in the expanded network.
Other new centres that will be included for the first time under the Genome Canada funding umbrella demonstrate a broader trend in the field to link genes identified through sequencing to their biological functions and health implications. For example, the Toronto Centre of Phenogenomics, another of the nodes, specializes in creating strains of mice with specific genetic mutations. that can be used in the development of new approaches for disease.
"It's the whole picture that's going to give rise to new treatments and diagnostics," said Dr. Meulien.
The new network amounts to a retooling of the country's genomics infrastructure, he added, marking a shift from the era when Genome Canada was needed to ensure that Canadian scientists had access to an expensive but crucially important new technology for biomedical research. Now, the research that the organization funds has expanded beyond health, with applications in agriculture and environmental science, among other areas.
The growing field of epigenetics, which involves the interaction between genes and their environment, has also changed the nature of genomics research in Canada and led to more co-operation among the original five centres that Genome Canada has supported in the past.
"I think by merging these various centres into a network there will be more expectation that they are going to work more collaboratively than they may have done," said Paul Lasko, a McGill University researcher and scientific director of the Institute of Genetics, part of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.