Geisel Receives $12.5 Million NIH COBRE Grant to Establish Center for Quantitative Biology

Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine has been awarded a 5-year, $12.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to establish a Center for Quantitative Biology (CQB) that will bring together and enhance initiatives in computational biology, bioinformatics, and experimental genomics across Dartmouth.

The new center will be funded as an Institutional Development Award (IDeA) Center for Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) from the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. The IDeA program builds research capacities in states that historically have had low levels of NIH funding by supporting basic, clinical and translational research; faculty development; and infrastructure improvements.

“This is a very exciting development. With funding from this federal grant, our new Center of Quantitative Biology will coalesce expertise from all corners of our campus to explore questions about the variability of cells in our bodies and how cell-to-cell variation affects the onset and severity of disease and response to treatment,” says Duane Compton, PhD, dean of the Geisel School of Medicine. “Under the skilled leadership of Dr. Michael Whitfield, the grant will also assist with the recruitment of new faculty in this rapidly emerging area of biomedical science.”

Michael Whitfield, PhD (Photo by Rob Strong)

The rapid advancement of high-throughput genomic (genes), proteomic (proteins), metabolomic (nutrients), and immune profiling technologies now provides a breadth and depth of data on individual cells that can be explored to examine basic biological processes, changes in cellular or organismal populations, and the molecular basis of disease.

“The scientific theme of our new Center will focus on these ‘omics,’ in studies that range from whole organisms and tissue biopsies to the detailed genomic analyses of single cells,” explains Michael Whitfield, PhD, chair of the Department of Biomedical Data Science at Geisel and principal investigator on the grant.

“Growing this new area of single cell omics will allow us to not only learn more about individual cells and how they change in response to their environments, but also about the changes that occur in single cells that could result in disease or in therapeutic responses to diseases like cancer,” says Whitfield, who is also a professor of biomedical data science and of molecular and systems biology at Geisel.

The CQB will be organized around several major goals: recruiting and developing new faculty with expertise in computational and experimental approaches; accelerating the interdisciplinary and collaborative research projects of junior faculty; further mentoring of junior quantitative biologists; and developing shared services (in single-cell genomics and data analytics) that provide the systems and infrastructure needed to support the merging of advanced quantitative biology and single-cell genomics.

“In essence, what we’re trying to do is to make high-level computation available to experimentalists that might not have that in their labs, while also helping people who are excellent computational biologists get access to really good data to analyze—that partnership will be key to our efforts,” Whitfield explains.

The CQB will draw upon Dartmouth faculty in Arts & Sciences, the Thayer School of Engineering, and Geisel, as well as colleagues at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine. It will recruit and provide a cohesive community for diverse scientists who could have homes in biomedical data science, molecular and systems biology, epidemiology, microbiology and immunology, biochemistry and cell biology, healthcare policy, biological sciences, computer science, and mathematics.

With the awarding of the COBRE grant, Dartmouth has made a substantial commitment to the success and long-term sustainability of the Center, including plans to hire new tenure-track faculty. It will also provide institutional program enrichment funds to help support research infrastructure, scientific exchange, and a pilot project program.

The success of the CQB will benefit the entire Dartmouth community by facilitating data integration and interdisciplinary research at all levels. “It will help us to foster a vibrant intellectual community, recruit and mentor new junior faculty who will become leaders in their own right at Dartmouth and in the region, and enhance the impact and funding competitiveness of all CQB members,” says Whitfield.

Through its emphasis on the generation, as well as the analysis, of wet-lab-based “omics big data,” the new Center will synergize with ongoing initiatives in the Norris Cotton Cancer Center, other COBREs at Dartmouth, and a number of departments, as well as educational programs such as the Graduate Program in Quantitative Biomedical Sciences (QBS) at Geisel.

“The training we’ve done with grad students in our QBS program has been very successful in merging different fields,” says Whitfield. “The big focus now will be to take that to the faculty level and encourage people to cross disciplines and work together in ways that are really more than the sum of their parts.”

Founded in 1797, the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth strives to improve the lives of the communities it serves through excellence in learning, discovery, and healing. The Geisel School of Medicine is renowned for its leadership in medical education, healthcare policy and delivery science, biomedical research, global health, and in creating innovations that improve lives worldwide. As one of America’s leading medical schools, Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine is committed to training new generations of diverse leaders who will help solve our most vexing challenges in healthcare.