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Bioinformatics bridges gap between disciplines

‘Most companies don’t like to spend money on bioinformatics,’ informatics expert Bert Coessens told Which could pose a problem, considering the cost of sequencing a human genome could drop to as little as $1,000, opening up the possibility of customised drug therapies that could generate huge volumes of data.

A recent report, written by Coessens and his colleague Sofie Bekaert, coordinators of the BioScope-IT alliance, suggests that this, and the advent of systems biology (a multi-disciplinary approach that models in silico the exact processes of a living system), could place a massive strain on small companies that do not currently understand the full capabilities of the bioinformatics software available.

It is for this reason that the BioScope-IT alliance was created, under the auspices of Belgian biotech cluster FlandersBio, to raise the profile of bioinformatics and provide unbiased advice to Belgian life sciences and pharmaceutical companies on the best bioinformatics approach for their business.

The report highlighted some key issues with the approach taken by life sciences organisations in Europe. ‘We have found there is a lack of education, communication and networking,’ says Coessens. ‘Bioinformatics is a young sector with not many well-established players yet, so people just don’t know who to go to to get the expertise they require.’

The alliance’s research suggests this is not a symptom of Belgium alone, but the whole of Europe. There are currently only a handful of degree courses on bioinformatics and computational biology, which has perhaps caused a severe lack of understanding. This means that, for any biotech project, only a very small proportion of the budget will typically go to the data processing and analysis rather than the more expensive wet-lab experiments. ‘They put all the money into running as many physical experiments as possible,’ says Coessens, while neglecting the need for software and statisticians.

Bekaert agrees: ‘It is always only seen as a facility, but it really needs to be taken into account from the start.’ This is not just in terms of the money allocated; researchers frequently run experiments only to find the data produced is not suitable for analysis, wasting huge amounts of time and money.

To remedy this, the alliance directs life sciences companies to the relevant experts, both academic and commercial, who could provide the expertise they need, and organises networking events and training courses to promote greater interaction between the different parties.

The alliance has also recently started new work in another direction, helping companies to make use of the vast online databases using high-speed internet access, while still maintaining security on the work they are doing. For the future, they will be arranging more thematic workshops, with some customised for the participants’ specific requirements.

‘Our aim is to raise people’s awareness of bioinformatics, and urge people to combine their expertise. Bioinformatics is a nice bridge to do this,’ says Bekaert.

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