By Rob Knies
September 22, 2009 11:00 AM PT
Over the past decade, Peer Bork of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory has been one of the most cited European researchers in the fields of molecular biology and genetics.
His recent work examines the ways that marketed drugs can help treat diseases beyond the original medicinal target.
For such achievements, Bork was named Sept. 22 as the recipient of the fourth annual Royal Society and Académie des sciences Microsoft Award, presented for his work to discover important relationships between the nature of the human microbiome—the union of all microorganisms that live in and around the human body—and various human parameters, such as age, ethnicity, diseases, nutrition, and genetics.
The honor, funded by Microsoft Research, includes a monetary prize of €250,000. Bork was formally recognized in Paris on Nov. 17 during a ceremony to be held at Académie des sciences, within the palais de l’Institut de France.
“I am very happy to receive such a prestigious international award,” says Bork, 46. “The field of bioinformatics is not one that receives credit easily, so it is wonderful to have the work of many decades acknowledged.
“I am very grateful for the funding being provided by this award, as our research holds great promise for treating illnesses hence. I hope that this money will help to untangle the molecular basis of a number of diseases and, more generally, to gain a better understanding of human health and well-being.”
The award was established in 2005 by Microsoft Research Cambridge, the Royal Society, and the Académie des Sciences to reward scientists working in Europe who have made a significant contribution to the advancement of science through computational methods.
Bork’s work more than qualifies, says Professor Denis Weaire, a fellow of the Royal Society and chair of the judging panel.
“Dr. Bork has made an outstanding contribution to the field of computational biology,” Weaire says. “His work promises to greatly speed up drug development by using computational data analysis to check drugs for additional hidden targets and potential uses in different therapeutic areas.
“His latest research on the nature of the human microbiome promises to be equally exciting, with a huge potential to change how we treat disease.”
Bork is senior group leader and joint head of the Structural and Computational Biology unit at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, a European research organization headquartered in Heidelberg, Germany.
Also a visiting group leader at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine Berlin-Buch, he received a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1990 and his habilitation in theoretical biophysics in 1995. He has published approximately 400 research articles in international, peer-reviewed journals, including more than 40 in Nature, Science, or Cell. He serves on the editorial boards of several journals, including Science and PLoS Biology, and is senior editor of Molecular Biology and Genetics.
Bork, who co-founded four biotechnology companies, two of which went public, received the Nature Mid-Career Achievement Award in 2008 for creative mentoring, an acknowledgement that recognized his achievements in nurturing and stimulating young scientists.
Earlier work in Bork’s research area used computational analysis to mine lists of undesirable drug side effects to determine potential new uses for the medications. Many drugs affect more than one bodily target, and the resulting side effects can be beneficial.
Aided by technological improvements, researchers now can capture genomic microbial information never seen before from tiny samples, such as bits of skin. This information is stored digitally in databases, and Bork is using computational analysis to sift through a vast amount of information to discern relationships between the data sets.
“For example,” he says, “when looking at samples from humans with diarrhea, we might be able to find the species—perhaps even the gene—that causes this disease. The hope is to develop an understanding of how to prevent or quickly treat this, perhaps by having a yogurt containing other bacteria that selectively reduce the ‘baddies.’ ”
The research, though, is contingent upon a detailed analysis of various microbiome data being produced worldwide.
“All this has to be integrated and digested,” Bork says, “before questions can be asked, such as: How do the microbes in the gut change with age, and why? Which species or genes are enriched in or around tumors, and why? Can we change the gut microbes that are known to be different in lean and obese people to reduce human body mass?”
Bork’s research relies on intensive, computer-based research.
“I use the computer for biological discoveries,” he says, “usually by comparing and integrating public data that are stored in databases or the scientific literature and are accessible via the Internet. By combining seemingly different data types, lots of novel insights can be generated, with practical relevance.
“Just one of many examples is the use of drug side-effect information, that everybody can read in the package inserts, to predict novel drug targets, the proteins to which drugs bind in our body and that trigger the cure of a disease. By looking up which marketed drugs have very similar side effects, we could predict —and experimentally confirm—novel targets in different indication areas. A drug against vomiting should also have targets like cancer drugs and might be repurposed for that.”
Previous winners of the Royal Society and Académie des sciences Microsoft Award include:
The Royal Society is an independent academy promoting the natural and applied sciences. Founded in 1660, the society has three roles: as the United Kingdom’s academy of science, as a learned society, and as a funding agency. Celebrating its 350th anniversary in November, the society promotes a spirit of enquiry, excitement, and engagement with science.
The Académie des sciences, established in 1666, is an independent body that is one of the five academies of the Institut de France. The Académie des sciences uses a multidisciplinary approach, interaction with other areas of learning, and international relations to encourage scientific activity and to foment the spirit of research.