WINDBER – A local research organization is expanding to continue its key role in a national cancer initiative.
The Chan Soon-Shiong Institute for Molecular Medicine is adding two departments and about a dozen employees, including two department heads.
Windber works with the federal government’s multi-agency Applied Proteogenomics Organizational Learning and Outcomes network. Abbreviated as the APOLLO project, it is a collaboration between the National Cancer Institute, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Windber’s long-time affiliation with Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and its John Murtha Cancer Center puts the research institute at the project’s hub.
“We are the biobank for this project,” said Chief Scientific Officer Hai Hu, at Windber.
The Chan Soon-Shiong Institute for Molecular Medicine also developed the informatics system to collect and categorize billions of pieces of information from cancer cells and patients. The data is then plugged into a Windber-developed platform that allows participating scientists around the world to access and apply the information to new research.
Windber’s informatics program has also created a system to help researchers analyze the data, looking for specific genetic or molecular similarities.
“We developed the system and use the system to make sense of the data,” said Leonid Kvecher, director of biomedical informatics infrastructure.
The work includes analysis of whole genome sequencing and analysis of the proteins produced by healthy cells and cancer cells, Kvecher said.
As the APOLLO research has expanded, Windber’s two information technology functions are now splitting into two departments: Informatics infrastructure and bioinformatics.
“We are hiring a director of bioinformatics,” Hu said.
The other new department is related to the existing biobank, which Senior Director Stella Somiari said now has more than 200,000 specimens in 32 freezer units.
The tissue and blood samples from participating patients are available to research, which Hu said includes extracting DNA and RNA molecules from various types of biospecimens.
Hu said scientists in Windber’s new molecular lab department use the specimens to “examine their quality, perform identify matching to ensure that different biospecimens are from the same persons, and conduct or facilitate performance of molecular studies, using a number of biochemical, genomic, and proteomic experimental platforms.”
The recruitment of a molecular lab director is underway.
At least 10 positions are now open at the research institute, said Tom Kurtz, who is president and CEO of both the Chan Soon-Shiong Institute for Molecular Medicine and the Chan Soon-Shiong Medical Center at Windber.
The two newset research associates were recruited from local universities, Kurtz said. One is a St. Francis University graduate and the other is a University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown product.
“We try to hire local talent as much as we can,” Kurtz said. “We encourage kids to get into science. It is tough for us to find employees with the education and experience we need.”
In another development, Windber’s research program is expanding to form a for-profit business, Kurtz said.
The name of the new business has not been determined, but it will allow the organization to apply for additional grants and bring more work to the lab.
Kelli Ruiz, director of research operations, will head the new business.