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Gene Network Sciences, company started and funded by Cornell students, gets $2 million federal grant for cancer research

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Gene Network Sciences (GNS), a fledgling cancer-research company started by Cornell University graduate students and financed by Cornell business students, has been awarded a $2 million federal Advanced Technology Program (ATP) grant. ATP is administered by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and makes annual grants that are matched by industry.

GNS was founded two years ago, and just 10 months ago it received funding of $125,000 from the Cornell Big Red Venture Fund, a venture capital group operated by students of Cornell's S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management. The investment was the fund's first in biotechnology.

Scientists at GNS will use the new federal grant to learn how pharmaceuticals work against parts of cancer cells. "We've mapped the cell pathways, and we have created the world's largest computer simulation of a human cancer cell. However, we need to generate more biological data to confirm how our simulation works. This grant helps pay for that research," says co-founder Colin Hill, a Cornell doctoral candidate in physics. GNS co-founder Iya Khalil obtained her doctorate at Cornell in 2001.

Two Cornell faculty members will advise in the research: Richard A. Cerione, professor of molecular medicine at the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Steven Strogatz, professor of theoretical and applied mechanics, sit on the company's scientific advisory board. Bruce Ganem, professor of chemistry and chemical biology, is a company consultant.

Hill said the grant would provide enough money to hire five to seven more researchers to perform micro-array and proteomics experiments.

During the three-year project, researchers will process large quantities of new data with new and existing proprietary software to create computer models, or simulations, of normal and cancerous cells as a means of rapidly identifying nontoxic drug targets. Using the company's existing 500-component cell model and simulation tools as a basis, GNS will simulate detailed models of cells incorporating up to 2,000 components.Hill believes the company's research program will make the drug-discovery process -- often considered haphazard and full of educated guesswork -- more predictable for pharmaceutical and biotech companies. "This is the new technology that will revolutionize pharmaceutical drug discovery," he says.

This is GNS's second federal award. In September the company received a $100,000 Small Business Innovation research grant from the National Institutes of Health to model key colon cancer signaling pathways and to test the predictions of the company's cell computer simulations.

The GNS ATP award was one of 40, totaling $101.6 million, granted by the program in the 2002 annual competition. The awards will be matched by industry cost-sharing of $92 million if carried through to completion. GNS was one of three New York state companies receiving the awards.

The ATP program bridges the gap between the research lab and the marketplace by stimulating innovation through partnerships with the private sector. ATP's early stage investment accelerates the development of innovative technologies that promise significant commercial payoffs.

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