Spotlight: Bioinformatics and Big Discoveries

Spotlight: Bioinformatics and Big Discoveries

Date Published:
Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Cory Brouwer accepts the fact most people can only achieve a limited grasp of his work as the director of UNC Charlotte’s Bioinformatics Services Division at the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC).

And that’s just fine with Brouwer, who realizes his scientific expertise is narrowly focused but increasingly important to mankind. He recently came aboard from the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. to oversee the University’s bioinformatics research program at David Murdock’s $1 billion brainchild in nearby Kannapolis.

Scientists from several other leading universities — including Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill and other UNC system schools — will benefit from the work done by UNC Charlotte researchers as they work on their own research.

“This is a great opportunity for UNC Charlotte to introduce our capabilities in this vital area to other leading scientists,” Brouwer said in an interview in his office at NCRC. “When you are only a short walk down the hall from these researchers, it’s much easier to overcome some of the things that can distance us. It leads to better and more effective collaboration.”

The work being done in life sciences and biotechnology in the 21st Century is really equivalent to what was being done in physics and electronics in the 20th Century. It’s vitally important for this university to be actively engaged in this biotechnology enterprise.
Larry Mays, Director
Bioinformatics Center

That’s why UNC Charlotte decided to open the division in the Core Laboratory Building at the NCRC, a 350-acre research park that will be home to the research programs of biotechnology companies as well as university and medical research programs.

There they will work, often in collaboration with their peers, in hopes of achieving Murdock’s vision to make NCRC a nucleus for great discoveries in nutrition, health and biotechnology research.

Brouwer said the UNC Charlotte team will look for opportunities to collaborate with researchers from private industry and other universities on their own groundbreaking work.

Brouwer’s background is in bioinformatics, which uses powerful computers to solve complex problems in biology. Without bioinformatics, he said, researchers would never be able to process the huge amount of information the biotech discovery process now generates.

For example, none of the powerful antiviral drugs approved in recent years would have come to the market without the use of bioinformatics to crunch the data.
Brouwer compares it to a tool most people can understand: a spreadsheet. That was what researchers had at their disposal before the advent of bioinformatics.

“You could never fit all the gigabytes and even terabytes of data needed for one experiment on one Excel spreadsheet,” he said. “You need our expertise to process all this data and we have the critical mass needed for these researchers to do their work.”

UNC Charlotte is invested in bioinformatics. In August 2009, the University’s Bioinformatics Research Center (BRC) moved into a new $35 million building on the Charlotte Research Institute Campus of UNC Charlotte. The building offers space for both wet and dry laboratories, and includes core facilities for molecular biology, proteomics and computing.

“The work being done in life sciences and biotechnology in the 21st Century is really equivalent to what was being done in physics and electronics in the 20th Century,” said Larry Mays, director of UNC Charlotte’s Bioinformatics Center. “It’s vitally important for this university to be actively engaged in this biotechnology enterprise.”