UC BREP at a Glance
The UC Systemwide Biotechnology Research and Education Program (UCBREP) serves all ten campuses and the three UC administered national laboratories: Lawrence Livermore, Lawrence Berkeley and Los Alamos. The Program was established in 1985 by the first director, noted Nobel Laureate UCLA Molecular Biologist Paul Boyer. In January 2002 following a systemwide competition, the Program was moved from UC Berkeley to its present home at UC Davis. UCBREP has awarded approximately $30 million in grants and supported over 1,000 graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.
Also of great significance is the role this Program plays in providing input on the formulation of state, national and international policy relating to biotechnology. UC BREP has been represented at federal, state and US congressional hearings on scientific and regulatory issues and has been involved in drafting reports for the US House Committee on Science. We have been asked by such diverse entities as the Gates Foundation to brief their directors and by the Pontifical Academy of Science to brief the Vatican on future opportunities and challenges in Biotechnology. The former Director of NSF and the former president of the NAS have requested us to review cross disciplinary science programs at other institutions. We have been selected to represent the United States Department of State, the US Department of Agriculture and the USAID at international venues ranging from Brazil to Botswana. And, while the focus is US biotechnology, the entity that is seen to represent US Science and Technology is UC BREP. To these audiences, governments and media around the world, the University of California and UC BREP are the faces of US preeminence in this arena.
Evolving over the last few years, UC BREP’s grant structure did not adequately track the impact that the Program support of graduate and postdoc training was having on biotechnology research and development in the State of California. Because there were more perceived prestigious federal training programs, our relatively small award was lost among the marquee names. Graduate education has become more expensive, which decreases faculty’s ability to fund and train students in novel and cutting edge science. The lucrative ($50,000 per annum) Graduate Research and Education in Adaptive bio-Technology (GREAT) Training Program was created to support environments that foster novel non-traditional cutting-edge cross-disciplinary research and training at the interface of the life and physical/computational sciences and supplemented, where necessary, by mentors to provide breath in cross-disciplinary fields. UC BREP’s GREAT Training Program funds researchers who display the greatest expertise and creativity working at the interface of these complementary disciplines.
The GREAT Training Program graduated its first trainees during 2006.
At the January 2008 meeting of the UC Regents, UC President Dynes chose two GREAT students to illustrate the quality of UC graduates and graduate education programs. Ours were the only students chosen from the science arena and UCBREP was the only program to have two students chosen for presentation to the Regents. The students were Emily Crawford, a UCSF trainee who is is developing a new technology for understanding the role of remodeler enzymes that dismantle cells during cell death. These could be the basis for new treatments in diseases like Alzheimer's and cancer. The second was Lavi Secundo, UC Berkeley, who is developing a brain-controlled prosthesis capable of reproducing a wide range of motor and sensory functions. Such a device will allow those with neurological problems to perform motor actions using only their thoughts.
Adam Seipel, UCSC, secured an appointment as a tenure-track assistant professor at Cornell immediately out of graduate school. Adam made headlines as a member of the group that characterized a gene in the neocortex that has changed rapidly during human evolution- a step towards understanding what sets us apart from our closest cousins. Seipel’s seminal work, which appeared in the journal Nature, applied new computational methods for the detection of functional elements in the human genome, reducing protein-coding genes from an initially estimated 35,000 to only 20,000 to 25,000. Adam noted in a letter that he had great difficulty obtaining support as a returning graduate student, and the GREAT program made it possible for him to undertake a novel project and complete graduate school in record time.
Another milestone was achieved when the HYPERCEST biosensor, invented by GREAT student Tom Lowery at UC Berkeley made national headlines. The biosensor includes xenon as the signal source in a specially designed molecular cage and it dramatically increases the sensitivity of magnetic resonance imaging which will have extensive clinical application with the potential to render redundant the dreaded mammogram!
Nils Homer’s work at UCLA has resulted in the NIH changing its policy on what it makes available on its website as he demonstrated with a clever data mining algorithm just how much data he could derive from opensource access. His method of resolving trace contribution to complex DNA mixtures is of great interest to forensics. Several companies are interested in another novel program that he has developed which revolutionizes sequencing analysis.
Roy Wollman, working in Jonathan Scholey’s lab, UC Davis, scored a major paper in Science for his work using a full genome RNAi screen to demonstrate just how unexpectedly complicated cell division is involving some 200 genes (150 previously unknown) which provides us with insight into potential targets for cancer therapeutics among other things.
Fulai Jin, UCLA, made the cover of Nature Methods with his work on a revolutionary interactome mapping system for protein complexes, which will allow meaningful interrogation of large-scale data sets, a fundamental requirement of systems biology.
Katie Whitehead, UCSB is forming her own company to exploit her work on intestinal patch delivery systems for protein therapeutics which may some day obviate the need for unappealing injections of certain therapeutics.
Some past UC BREP stars include Jim Kent, who was credited by Francis Collins as enabling the public Human Genome Project to beat Craig Venter to the goal post in generating the first assembly of the human genome. And Angela Belcher, now at MIT, who received the prestigious MacArthur’s genius award for devising ways to use genetically modified viruses to produce nanomaterials which could one day be incorporated into nanoelectronics or nanoscale machines.
We have heard from numerous sources that the GREAT traineeship is achieving recognition as a mark of supreme achievement and a desirable addition to a top fight CV.