University of Alberta to build Virtual Cell with IBM Award

Toronto, Edmonton 26 May 2003Researchers supported by an IBM award have begun groundbreaking work to develop a virtual cell, a micro-organism that lives only in cyberspace to cut health care costs, speed the development of new drugs and test new treatments. The Canadian researchers, working at the University of Alberta's Institute of Biomolecular Design, are creating a virtual version of an E.coli cell. The "CyberCell" project, aided by a technology award from IBM's Shared University Research (SUR) programme, will create a simulation of an E.Coli cell with the goal of developing the knowledge and technology to simulate more complex living organisms.


"Our challenge is to anticipate where the science is moving so that we can position Canada at the forefront of what is certain to be the largest international effort of this century", stated Mike Ellison, director of the Institute of Biomolecular Design and lead on the CyberCell project.

"Awards, such as the one from IBM, help us work together to ensure that Canada is not only a respected and valued participant in this effort, but that Canada can actually lead this effort in key areas. It is no longer a question of whether or not a virtual cell can be created, but when a virtual cell will be created. This time we are determined to make sure that Canada is in on the ground floor."

Using IBM technology, scientists will be able to manipulate the "virtual cell" at different levels of molecular resolution and study how the cell responds, adapts and exploits its virtual environment. The result is a smarter, faster and cheaper science that can help accelerate discovery of new drug treatments.

"IBM Life Sciences is excited to be helping the Institute of Biomolecular Design in its quest to move Canada to the forefront in this type of research", stated Don Aldridge, public sector business development executive for IBM Life Sciences in Canada. "This award allows Project CyberCell to acquire world-class high performance computing technology. Through this collaboration IBM will also make available access to its leading computer scientists in the area of Life Sciences."

"Rational drug design is now going to have the added dimension of being able to quickly predict not only the targeted effects of new drug compounds but also the physiological side effects of new compounds", stated Mike Ellison. "From the perspective of genetic engineering, new gene combinations could be metabolically tested and optimised. The potential applications of the Virtual Cell would be virtually limitless."

In addition to providing key computing elements to Project CyberCell, IBM has also contributed a full suite of performance-enhancing software tools and specialised applications specific to Life Sciences research. Access to researchers in IBM's Computational Biology Centre who have deep subject matter expertise and a strong affinity with biological modelling applications will also be provided. The high performance computer server provided through the IBM SUR Award is an IBM eServer pSeries 690 with more than a terabyte of storage capacity.

Project CyberCell is Canada's contribution to an escalating international effort to simulate living systems computationally. The Canadian arm of the project is a consortium of researchers from Canadian universities and research institutions that is headquartered in Alberta. Project CyberCell has adopted a direction that is complementary to related initiatives found elsewhere.

IBM's Shared University Research programme awards computing equipment such as servers, storage systems, personal computing products, etc., to colleges, universities and institutions of higher education around the world to facilitate research projects in areas of mutual interest, including Life Sciences, Grid Computing, Autonomic Computing and Deep Computing.

The SUR awards also support the advancement of university projects by connecting top researchers in academia with IBM Research personnel, along with representatives from product development and solution provider communities. IBM awards approximately 50 SUR grants per year worldwide.

Project CyberCell, headquartered at the University of Alberta, is Canada's contribution to an escalating international effort to create an accurate representation of a living cell in silico. The goal of Project CyberCell is to develop quantitative approaches for acquiring the proteomic, genomic and metabolic data that will drive and validate a virtual construction of the bacterium E. coli. using a novel massively parallel high performance computational approach. For more information, you can visit the Project CyberCell Web site.

Leslie Versweyveld

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