New program focuses on biological process at a system level

Dekker and Walhout to lead Program in Systems Biology

By Mark Shelton

UMass Medical School Communications

February 17, 2012

A new interdisciplinary research program, the Program in Systems Biology, has been established at UMass Medical School, Terence R. Flotte, MD, the Celia and Isaac Haidak Professor of Medicine, executive deputy chancellor, provost and dean of the School of Medicine announced recently. The new program was approved by the UMMS Executive Council last fall; University of Massachusetts President Robert L. Caret formally approved the program earlier this month.

“The goal of systems biology as a field is to understand biological processes at a systems level rather than at the level of individual molecules,” said Dr. Flotte. “Relationships between biomolecules are the focus of study, rather than individual genes or proteins. It is my judgement that the biology of complex systems and the computational methods enabling this work will form the foundation for the next generation of science, likely to take hold for several decades into the future.”

Systems biology capitalizes on technological advances in the areas of genomics and high-throughput instrumentation, with strong links to computational biology, math, statistics and bioinformatics. As large datasets become more affordable and faster to produce because of advances in laboratory technology and experimental design, it grows more difficult to effectively make sense of these data without a systems way of thinking. Using mathematical models to incorporate such data, as well as generating new data with a systems framework in mind, are both essential.

Leading the new program as co-directors will be Job Dekker, PhD, professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology and molecular medicine and a member of the Program in Gene Function and Expression; and Marian Walhout, PhD, professor of molecular medicine. In establishing this program, UMMS joins the growing group of top universities, including Stanford and Duke, where a systems-biology focus is enhancing basic and translational science efforts.

“Because science is becoming so necessarily interdisciplinary, progress very much depends on a strong collaborative environment,” said Flotte. “Researchers here share this sense of excitement and possibility, and as a result, we have a unique opportunity to develop an outstanding initiative in systems biology that will firmly position UMMS as a leader in this area.”