Bioinformatics: Lights on, no one home?

By Iain Scott
Friday, 05 April, 2002

Pilots, not planes, are needed to get Australia's nascent bioinformatics industry off the ground, according to one of the authors of a new report.

Dr Tim Littlejohn, CEO of Sydney bio-IT company BioLateral, said the creation of a national panel of experts was vital if Australia was to get a slice of the projected $US10 billion global bioinformatics pie.

The report, Bioinformatics: Issues and Opportunities for Australia, published by the Commonwealth Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources said that intensive research and training efforts were initiated over the next three years which, if implemented, would lead to "rapid spin-offs".

The report said bioinformatics was one of the crucial elements in a successful Australian biotech sector, and identified four key areas in which action needs to be taken for the development of Australia's bio-IT sector: education and training, R&D, major processing infrastructure, and commercialisation.

Littlejohn said that the first thing needed was a new panel, chosen from academia and research, that could direct funding where it was needed.

"The NHMRC reckons it already knows about bioinformatics," he said.

"It's good on the life sciences, but there are nuances in the intersection of information science and life science that it doesn't understand.

"Pure-play bioinformatics doesn't get the funding, and no one else is funding it."

What was often overlooked, he said, was that bio-IT skills encompassed a wide range of areas often distinct from the life sciences -- mathematics, statistics, electrical and mechanical engineering and computing.

When it came to commercialisation, Australian bio-IT faced many of the same pitfalls as other areas in biotech, the report said -- the lack of an entrepreneurial skills base, a too-brief track record and a shortage of pre-seed funds.

But bio-IT faced its own impediments, too, including a tiny customer base and little encouragement for research.

Industry involvement was "critical", the report said, and "all possible measures" should be taken to integrate bioinformatics with Australian industry, including luring big players in platform technology, data management, biotech and pharma, into Australia.

The nation hosts only a handful of tiny pure-play bio-IT companies, including Desert Scientific, BioLateral and BioGene-E-Us. But several big biotech companies, including Cerylid Biosciences, Proteome Systems, Axon Instruments and Bionomics, had major bioinformatics sub-structures.

"What the investment and legal communities don't understand is that there won't be a huge number of pure-play [bioinformatics] companies," Littlejohn said. "But maybe the way to get more investment in biotechnology is to get the IT-savvy investors interested in bioinformatics."

But ultimately, Littlejohn said, the biggest boost for the bio-IT sector would be "three to five really big projects" in genomics, medical and biodiversity, creating a "data flood" that would rely on bioinformatics.

"Centres of excellence, funding, skills -- it all becomes a little academic if you don't have a large volume of data to process," he said.

"We're starting to see some groups, like the ANU and WEHI, building their critical mass. But we have to watch out for the Vegemite problem -- that the excellence is spread too thin, and not concentrated."

The report is one in a series on Australia's emerging industries, and was prepared by the industry-led Bioinformatics Industry Opportunity Taskforce (BIOT).

Apart from Littlejohn, the taskforce includes:

  • Prof German Spangenberg, Plant Biotechnology Centre, Victoria
  • Dr Deborah Rathjen, Bionomics
  • Bob Mounic, RJM Services
  • Dr Roger Buckeridge, Allen and Buckeridge
  • Dr John Curran, CSIRO Entomology
  • Prof Simon Easteal, John Curtin School of Medical Research

Research's twilight zone

In an industry with a publish or perish mentality, Australia has flatlined badly when it comes to bioinformatics publications worldwide.

A search for 'bioinformatics' on Medline, the pre-eminent biomedical literature database, shows that the rate of publication of papers from Australia in the field has been "low and stagnant", according to the BIOT report.

Meanwhile, publications on bioinformatics from the US and elsewhere in the world have grown steadily, reflecting the increasing awareness of the importance of research in the field.

Nonetheless, the report identifies several groups conducting bio-IT research in Australia, including ANGIS (the national bioinformatics facility), Murdoch University, Monash University, ANU, the University of Queensland and LaTrobe University, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, and CSIRO.

New regional Bio-IT consortia and investments in WA, Victoria and NSW have also sprung up recently.

But, the report warns, all stakeholders would benefit if state and national initiatives were coordinated to reduce "unnecessary duplication of effort and infrastructure".

"The difficulty in growing bioinformatics research in Australia is exacerbated by the fact that none of the funding agencies has a speciality in bioinformatics," the report says.

"This lack of coalesced expertise and dedicated funding has stifled bioinformatics research, which needs to grow through careful nurturing by experts."

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