Systems Biology: A Pale Beacon For Biotechs

Systems biology, a siren in a sea of dark prospects, has lured investors frustrated with low returns in biotechnology and anxious to set a new course of drug discovery. Institutions have also geared up training programs, but the excitement in the new field has failed to arrest downsizing in the biotech industry. Major research institutions and pharmaceutical companies, including AstraZeneca, Novartis, and Eli Lilly and Company, are implementing systems biology in the hopes of slashing drug di

Feb 24, 2003
Hal Cohen

Systems biology, a siren in a sea of dark prospects, has lured investors frustrated with low returns in biotechnology and anxious to set a new course of drug discovery. Institutions have also geared up training programs, but the excitement in the new field has failed to arrest downsizing in the biotech industry.

Major research institutions and pharmaceutical companies, including AstraZeneca, Novartis, and Eli Lilly and Company, are implementing systems biology in the hopes of slashing drug discovery costs by more carefully selecting clinical subjects. "Patient-specific knowledge earlier will pay huge dividends later," says Steven Burrill, CEO of the life sciences merchant bank, Burrill & Company, in San Francisco.

Despite the interest of the pharmaceutical industry, prospective systems biologists should think carefully before investing in training in hopes of landing a job in the new field. Biotechnology companies have downsized, flooding the market with scientists, says Marnie MacDonald, CEO of Odyssey Thera, a San Ramon, Calif., biotech. "There have been a lot of layoffs recently, so there are a lot of skilled [systems biologists] looking for work," she adds. "But long-term it will probably come back around."

Such optimism reflects the expectation that systems biology will provide a potentially more efficient route to drug discovery and development. By studying the interactions of biological systems in their entirety (or in large chunks) rather than investigating individual genes and pathways, scientists hope to build inroads to new therapies.

The typical systems biologist develops mathematical models of biochemical processes through differential equations that describe changing concentrations of chemicals in the cell. The resulting data are then used to predict the system's behavior and to redesign it to prevent possible defects. "The largest costs in clinical trials are the late phases as larger population studies are used," Burrill says. "The problem with the current drug discovery paradigm is that we haphazardly take mutants with some unexpected properties and we begin to develop them. It's a pretty happenstance approach to technology."

CAREER COINS To create a more logical methodology, the model systems biologist should have a broad, integrated background, as the research requires an intimate knowledge of computational biology, physics, and wet biology, according to Leroy Hood, president of the Institute for Systems Biology (ISB), Seattle. "You need to know how to use the computational tools that deal with protein and genomic analyses, but also a deep understanding of the biological systems to apply these tools properly," Hood says.

Landing a job in systems biology does not require a learned interdisciplinary background upon arrival, but it is desired. Reinhold Mann, associate laboratory director at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, Wash., says he prefers to hire those with a record of accomplishment in biology and who also know the computational side. But he has seen students of both disciplines learn the others. "I've seen biologists pick up the computational stuff and computer scientists who are doing wonderfully in protein structure prediction," Mann says.

Others maintain that their employees are better off sticking with what they know. "When you hire people, you look for a specific set of skills," MacDonald says. "In a company setting it would make no sense to take a strong, well-trained molecular biologist and try to teach him bioinformatics."

For those interested in branching out their skills anyway, courses and seminars are becoming more readily available. Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have initiated courses for systems biology. Within the last year, MIT launched its Computational and Systems Biology initiative (CSBi) to encourage collaboration between faculty and students from different departments. Peter Sorker, cochair of CSBi, says MIT's systems biology PhD program will enroll its first class of candidates this fall, and MIT is adding new graduate courses on the foundations of systems biology. The courses, similar to the week-long summer course ISB offers, will become available to the public during summers starting in 2004. ISB also distributes software tools to the public for scientists dealing with high-throughput data.

In the meantime, Mann proposes to tackle one field initially and learn others in graduate school. "This is a field where you can't really wing it," Mann says. "It's an exciting time and there's a lot of opportunity in the field, but you have to be serious and be willing to do your homework. Like my thesis advisor said, 'You're going to be doing many different things, but you have to be good at something.'"

Hal Cohen can be contacted at hcohen@the-scientist.com.