Research collaboration receives Fogarty award to support informatics research training

BLACKSBURG, Va., Nov. 25, 2009 – The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech is part of a collaboration of researchers recently awarded a grant from the Fogarty International Center, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to support informatics research training in low- and middle-income countries.

The institute's Cyberinfrastructure Group, led by Virginia Bioinformatics Institute Professor Bruno Sobral, and Associate Professor João Setubal’s research group are partnering with the University of Georgia and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ) in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on a project designed to train researchers to develop information systems and apply computer-supported management and analysis to biomedical research projects.

The group received a $750,000 grant for the five-year project from Fogarty's Informatics Training for Global Health program to expand its existing training program in Brazil into new areas of bioinformatics, epidemiology, and molecular evolution, with a particular focus on tropical parasites and their vectors. Through partnerships with research institutions in the United States, the goal of the program is to integrate training with ongoing research at foreign institutions to develop informatics capacity and support research.

Jessica Kissinger, associate professor in the University of Georgia's Department of Genetics and Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases serves as principal investigator on the project, along with Guilherme Oliveira, Genomics and Computational Biology Group leader at the FIOCRUZ René Rachou Research Institute. Kissinger is also involved with the Eukaryotic Pathogens Database Resources (EuPathDB) Bioinformatics Research Center (BRC), one of four newly established BRCs that recently received funding from the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) to support the biomedical community's work on infectious disease. The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute's Cyberinfrastructure Group will develop, implement, and manage the BRC for selected NIAID category A-C priority bacterial species and will also develop the new portal for the entire BRC program, which will serve as an informatics coordinating center and gateway for the centers.

"I am very pleased that the Cyberinfrastructure Group will continue to be involved with this project," said Sobral, who is a trainer for the project. "[The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute] has a longstanding partnership with the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation and this award will allow us to continue our work to help students develop tools to better analyze data and compare results, which will lead to improved resources for clinicians in areas with limited resources. The technology and knowledge that will come from this training can also be used for research on other parasitic organisms. Given my group's recent award from NIAID to support PATRIC 2.0 and Pathogen Portal, this work and other pending work with FIOCRUZ leverages and expands the opportunities, including enabling students to learn through participation in active world-class research projects."

Setubal is also a trainer for the project, working closely with Alberto Dávila, senior scientific researcher for FIOCRUZ in Rio de Janeiro. Partnering with Kimmen Sjölander, associate professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of California at Berkeley, they plan to engage students in diverse research activities, including the development of protein families for certain key parasites of interest to FIOCRUZ. This work will help improve an online resource for protozoan genomes, which is maintained by Dávila's research group.

Advanced training will be conducted for graduate and postdoctoral students through workshops, courses, and short- and long-term training, both within Brazil and abroad. The training will focus on the continued maintenance and extension of the Schistosoma genome database created at the FIOCRUZ René Rachou Research Institute during the first phase of the training award. Molecular evolution training will focus on the Schistosome vector, Biomphalaria, and epidemiological data will be analyzed from existing projects.

Fogarty, the international component of the NIH, addresses global health challenges through innovative and collaborative research and training programs and supports and advances the NIH mission through international partnerships.

The Cyberinfrastructure Group at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute develops methods, infrastructure, and resources to help enable scientific discoveries in infectious disease research and other research fields. The group applies the principles of cyberinfrastructure to integrate data, computational infrastructure, and people. The group has developed many public resources for curated, diverse molecular and literature data from various infectious disease systems, and implemented the processes, systems, and databases required to support them. It also conducts research by applying its methods and data to make new discoveries of its own. The Cyberinfrastructure Group has developed PATRIC, the PathoSystems Resource Integration Center, which serves as a comprehensive web-based resource for bacterial pathogens, biodefense research, and the study of emerging infectious diseases.