DUBLIN, Ireland ¿ Biotechnology accounts for just three of the first 10 projects to receive backing from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), the body established last year to fund basic research in the life sciences and IT.

The initial 10 projects, which SFI selected following an international peer-review process, will share total funding of EUR71 million (US$62 million). SFI, which was established in the wake of a government-sponsored technology foresight exercise, has a total research budget of EUR711 million to allocate between now and 2006. (See BioWorld International, Aug. 2, 2000.)

The first three life sciences teams to gain SFI backing are all based at Trinity College Dublin. Two of them are in the college¿s genetics department. Seamus Martin is heading a team that is working on apoptosis, or programmed cell death. Martin¿s particular focus is on the activation and mechanism of action of caspases, the protease enzymes that play a central role in cell suicide. His group will use the SFI funding, he said, to conduct high-throughput protein mass spectrometry studies of cell populations in order to pinpoint minute alterations to cellular composition during apoptosis.

Ken Wolfe is a bioinformatics specialist in the same department, working on the functional organization of eukaryotic genomes. His lab was the only Irish group to be involved in the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium. It will use the SFI funding to examine the structure of sequenced genomes in an effort to understand whether there are any rules that govern the specific location of genes on chromosomes.

Kingston Mills is heading a project team in Trinity¿s biochemistry department that will examine interactions between pathogens and specific T-cell subtypes with a view to developing improved immunotherapeutic and vaccine strategies.

The Irish government has appointed an American, William Harris, as the first director general of SFI. Harris, currently vice president for research at the University of South Carolina, was previously president and executive director of Columbia University¿s Biosphere 2 Center in Arizona and has also served as the director for mathematical and physical sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF). He takes up his new position on Sept. 1, but visited Dublin last week for the awards announcement.

¿My impression is that there are some very talented people here but the laboratories are not up to speed compared with the USA,¿ he told BioWorld International. He is looking to the NSF as a role model for the new foundation, and compares the excitement surrounding the current initiative with the original establishment of the NSF in the postwar era. SFI is looking to recruit international researchers to head project teams, as well as bolstering funding for leading researchers who are already based in Ireland. The first 10 project teams include four that are led by overseas scientists.

Harris¿ main task, he said, is to foster an environment where scientific excellence can thrive. ¿You have to create a place where first-rate people want to be,¿ he said.

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