By Kim Coghill

Washington Editor

Myriad Genetics Inc. and Isis Pharmaceuticals Inc. last week joined a $50 million National Institutes of Health-sponsored scientific undertaking to determine the means by which cells communicate.

A consortium of 50 scientists from 20 universities called the Alliance for Cellular Signaling (AFCS) will conduct the research led by Nobel laureate Alfred Gilman, chairman of pharmacology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

The long-term goal is to develop a "virtual cell" that will function as a drug discovery generator, rapidly testing new molecules against an accurate representation of a cell in a controlled but dynamic experimental environment.

Under a "glue grant," the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), an organization of the NIH, will spend $25 million on the project, which will be eligible for renewal after five years. Several non-profit organizations and pharmaceutical companies will contribute matching funds, said Alison Davis, NIGMS science writer.

ProNet technology, a product of Salt Lake City-based Myriad, will be used to research the protein interactions within the cell.

Adrian Hobden, president of Myriad, said the company's participation in the alliance recognizes the importance of protein interactions as the basis to understanding cell signaling.

"We will be uniquely positioned to put this knowledge to use through our association with this elite group of researchers and pharmaceutical companies," he said.

The GeneTrove genomics division of Carlsbad, Calif.-based Isis will provide its expertise in creating and using antisense inhibitors to identify the function of genes and the role they play in cellular models. The antisense methods can rapidly, efficiently and precisely determine the role of essentially any gene within a biological system.

Using mice, scientists will study all aspects of cellular communications in cardiomyocytes (heart muscle cells that can beat in a dish) and B cells. The team, before its proposal was approved by the NIH, sought "interesting" cells that could also live in a dish long enough to be studied in detail.

Within the next year, the complete genetic sequence of the mouse will be spelled out, enabling scientists to inventory the entire collection of genes involved in making mouse cardiomyocytes and B cells do what they do, Gilman said in a press release.

"We hope to create a piece of a virtual cell," Gilman said, adding that he anticipates drug developers will ultimately be able to test new compounds "in silco," meaning that they will have the ability to search for new drugs using a computer alone.

The effort to fund a team of scientists through a glue grant is the first of its nature and marks a scientific evolution, said Michael Rogers, NIGMS director of the division of pharmacology, physiology and biological chemistry. "In the past, scientists would work independently," he said.

But introduction of the team approach gives scientists the opportunity to share knowledge and it introduces various and sophisticated laboratories to the study. Research will be conducted in academic settings at the California Institute of Technology, the San Francisco Veterans Administration Medical Center, Stanford University, the University of California and the University of Texas.

Scientists working in the specially designed laboratories have pledged to forgo intellectual property rights and first rights to publish in peer-reviewed journals. All data produced in the core laboratories will be deposited immediately into the publicly accessible database.

Davis said there likely will be other opportunities for glue grants in the future.

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