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Genomics pioneer

Fraser-Liggett moves her team into the University of Maryland’s BioPark in Baltimore

by Steve Berberich | Staff Writer | The Gazette

The University of Maryland’s School of Medicine in Baltimore is so committed to developing personalized medicine, and its commercial potential, that it has lured a star player in genome sciences away from Rockville, the bedrock of the cutting-edge field.

That pioneer is Claire M. Fraser-Liggett, who accepted an offer last year to head the school’s new Institute for Genome Sciences.

Since 1998, Fraser-Liggett had been president and director of The Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, a now-defunct nonprofit that deciphered and analyzed genomes, the basis for personalized medicine. She has been a fixture in genomics discoveries for more than a decade and was married to, and led a career parallel with, human genome pioneer J. Craig Venter for more than 20 years.

This summer, Fraser-Liggett and about 80 employees of her new institute will move into a 40,000-square-foot laboratory and office suite on the fifth and sixth floors of the new Building 2 in the university’s BioPark. She brought 60 employees from TIGR, including 12 senior faculty members.

‘It is terrific new space,” Fraser-Liggett said. ‘‘To have the opportunity to design that amount of space was a very large part of the attraction for me.”

The BioPark calls for an eventual total of 10 buildings. It is in a residential and commercial tract just west of the main campus, with a price tag of $500 million and a final build-out of 1.2 million square feet of laboratory and office space.

Snagging Fraser-Liggett ‘‘will fuel the expansion of genomic research at the School of Medicine,” said its dean, E. Albert Reece, in a statement.

‘‘She has had a history of good business interactions,” said Bruce E. Jarrell, the school’s vice dean for research and academic affairs. ‘‘We would welcome that sort of thing.” And, he added, ‘‘she is obviously a world-class scientist.”

‘She’s in a big frontier area’

Fraser-Liggett is the most frequently cited scientist in the field of microbiology for the past 11 years. At TIGR, she formed partnerships with Novartis’ vaccine division and other pharmaceutical companies, and she serves on the board of Becton, Dickinson & Co.

The school recruited Fraser-Liggett, Jarrell said, because ‘‘she happens to be in a field that we in medicine think is a big frontier area where there will be a lot of important discoveries to come. Those will be even more relevant if they are done in cooperation with clinical scientists.”

Since the human genome was fully sequenced in June 2000, the much-ballyhooed launch of personalized medicine has been slow to develop, according to critics.

Still, genomics has revealed genes or combinations of genes that cause certain diseases, significantly sharpened testing for risk of rare diseases, led to better diagnostic kits and revealed some drug metabolizing differences between individuals. Together, these advances represent a personalizing of medicine that is likely to result in cost savings to consumers, observers say.

Fraser-Liggett, an expert in microbial genomics, previously oversaw genome sequencing at TIGR of important human pathogens, including bacterial infections that cause cholera and anthrax, and parasitic infections responsible for malaria and other devastating diseases in the developing world.
She recently spoke at Princeton University’s public affairs symposium, ‘‘No Country Left Behind: Transforming Global Health.”

Reflecting on that meeting and her visits to affected regions of Africa, she said, ‘‘I feel that the issues of global health are more pressing, despite recent efforts to develop local infrastructure for countries to take hold of their own public health.” Such work is strongly related to biodefense and global security, she said.
‘Bigger and better things’ at the university

Researchers at the School of Medicine who have worked with human genomics for more than 10 years expect strong synergy with the former TIGR researchers.

‘‘We will be able to do bigger and better things together,” said Alan R. Shuldiner, director of the Program in Genetics and Genomic Medicine. ‘‘We are reasonably close to achieving personalized medicine.”
Genes for obesity and cardiovascular diseases have been found, he said, and the field will lead to an entire new class of therapies — and not just drugs, but also lifestyles, including special diets and exercises.
Researchers at the medical school are learning how variations in the body increase susceptibility to diseases and how to predict an outcome that can be spotted genetically, he said.

‘‘And personalized medicine will be pre-emptive in that we will be able to identify individuals at risk early in life and target those individuals for medicines to prevent the diseases,” Shuldiner said.
Fraser-Liggett agrees.

‘‘One of the most important challenges over the next two decades will be integrating new insights from the past 10 years of genomics studies into the clinical environment to impact human health,” she said. ‘‘There is no better place to be working toward these goals than in a large academic medical center like the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

‘‘I think we really have crossed a threshold in many areas in that our work has already moved beyond basic research to see how this kind of information can be used,” she said.

Shorter development time for vaccines

Scientists at Novartis in Cambridge, Mass., working with Fraser-Liggett’s team at TIGR and the University of Maryland, have been able to accelerate the first phase of vaccine development by identifying new vaccine candidates and thereby reducing development time from about 12 to five years.

Using gene information uncovered by TIGR, Novartis has a strong meningitis B vaccine candidate entering phase 3 clinical trials, said Rino Rappuoli, the company’s global head of vaccine research. Scientists have tried for 60 years to develop a vaccine for meningitis B, which kills within hours of infection.

‘It has been impossible,” said Rappuoli, who has worked with Fraser-Liggett for eight years. ‘‘Now this pioneering work has changed the field.”

‘‘Shaving off a number of years at the discovery phase up front has a positive impact,” Fraser-Liggett said. Genomics has helped vaccine development make a resurgence, permeating research at both small biotechs and giant pharmas, she said.