Gene centre opens in Zurich

The new genomics centre boasts state of the art facilities. ethlife.ch

Scientists in Zurich have welcomed the opening of a new laboratory, dedicated to exploring the nature and function of genes.

This content was published on March 4, 2002 - 13:08

The Functional Genomics Centre, jointly funded by Zurich University and the Federal Institute of Technology is expected to give a major boost to cutting-edge research.

"We have been able to acquire the latest technology available," said Professor Josef Jiricny, director of the university's Institute of Medical Radiobiology.

"By pooling resources, we have been able to buy extremely sophisticated but also extremely expensive machines which would not normally be available to research groups at a university."

Gene patterns

Jiricny is trying to understand the mechanism by which a normal cell becomes mutated into a cancer cell.

One problem researchers encounter is that when they look at the cells in a cell culture in a normal laboratory dish, the cells from a tumour can look exactly the same whether they are resistant to chemotherapy or not.

"You have no idea where you should start looking because both these cells contain 35,000 genes in their genome and any one could be responsible for the difference between sensitivity to chemotherapy and resistance," said Jiricny.

"The modern technology of genomics makes it possible for us, in one experiment, to obtain an image of the global activity of all the genes in the one cell."

By directly comparing all 35,000 genes which are active in the resistant cell with those in the cell, which is responsive to chemotherapy, and by comparing the activity of the two gene patterns, scientists can identify those which are important for resistance.

New methodology

Professor Adriano Aguzzi at the Institute for Neuropathology of Zurich University Hospital is trying to understand the molecular mechanisms behind the damage caused by prions. Prions are the infectious agents, which cause mad cow disease or BSE and Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease in humans.

"We have hit a wall with our attempts to understand what is going on with prion disease and I am very confident that the new methodologies of functional genomics will allow us to get further," said Aguzzi.

"The fascination is that you can go from an unknown protein to a potential function in weeks rather than years," said Professor Wilhelm Gruissem, professor for plant biotechnology in Zurich, whose work is concerned with identifying new proteins in plants.

The centre, which will be used for research and teaching purposes, has cost about SFr10 million to set up. Running costs will be between SFr5 and SFr10 million a year.

by Vincent Landon

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