Heather Munroe-Blum
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Susan Horton
Molly Shoichet
  Great Minds,No Walls
  Tim Rowley
Aled Edwards
  Helen Hogg

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Aled Edwards is ready to run the genome race

Aled Edwards is the Henry Ford of molecular biology. Impatient with the progress that science has made in exploring the human genetic map, this 37-year-old researcher is devising ways of automating the process to know more, faster.

Edwards likens our quest to comprehend biology and disease to trying to understand the contents of a dark room in which the light is shining on only one corner. "Thousands of scientists are peering into the lit corner, studying phenomena about which we are already aware,š says Edwards. "But what genome science has done over the past five years is, in essence, to turn on the floodlights in the room. This has revealed that practically all scientists have been working on what amounts to one fifth of the story."

"In my mind, this is a humbling realization. No engineer could understand how a machine works if presented with 100,000 parts and directions for only 20,000 of them. It is presumptuous of us, as medical researchers, to pretend we can explain complex diseases with a similarly limited understanding of the human machine. It is clearly time to plough into the unknown."

To accomplish this, Edwards argues that scientists must change their approach. "At present, an average of at least five researchers focus on any particular gene, trying to unlock its intricate secrets. But this őhypothesis-driven approach,‚ which has guided science over the past 50 years, will not be able to finish the job. There simply aren‚t 500,000 scientists available. So we have to develop methods that allow us to do thousands of experiments at once."

Edwards is focused on an emerging area called "structural proteomics" His goal is to explain the functions of the body‚s protein machines by determining their three-dimensional structure. To do this, his team takes old-style biochemical methods, which were honed on individual proteins, and tries to apply them to thousands of proteins at one time. Currently, the group can determine the structure of 10 to 50 proteins a year, but aims for 500 or 1,000 a year in three or four years. "We hope to complete the job by the year 2010."

At times, he sounds like a productivity-driven CEO, keenly aware of the need to succeed. "It‚s a race, and Canada needs to invest to win that race. From a business point of view, 80,000 proteins represent a lot of intellectual property."

Edwards, sitting in his paper-strewn office in a tank top and bare feet, plays the role of the iconoclast far more comfortably than that of the executive. It‚s a role suiting his particular brand of science, which hovers on the fringes of biomolecular research.

Proteomics, which is ultimately discovering how to conduct traditional experiments better and a thousand times faster, is viewed with some suspicion because, unlike traditional research, it doesn‚t set out to prove a particular hypothesis. "With science like this, we‚ll get there faster, but not as elegantly,š Edwards shrugs. "I guess the underlying hypothesis is that, after 10 years, this style of research will have done more to understand human biology than any other."

The scale and scope of the research depends on many collaborators from within several U of T departments and from the teaching hospitals affiliated with the university. Edwards says that working at U of T and its health sciences complex is absolutely essential for his work. "In terms of competition, being at this university is unique because it has excellence in many areas, not just medicine, but also chemistry, biology, engineering, and computer science. It‚s a rare combination, and we must capitalize on it."

University of Toronto Office of the Vice-President, Research and Associate Provost