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Novel approach to treating human disease wins top international computational science prize

22 September 2009

Dr Peer Bork, a bioinformatician from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg (Germany), has won one of the largest international prizes in science, the Royal Society and Académie des sciences Microsoft Award, it was announced today (22 September 2009).

Dr Bork has won the 250,000 euro award, funded by Microsoft Research, for his research which aims to discover the important relations between the nature of the human microbiome (that is the union of all microorganisms that live in and around the human body) and various parameters such as age, ethnic background, disease status, nutrition habits and individual genetic components.

Due to tremendous improvements in technology, researchers from all over the world are able to capture genomic information from microbes, never seen before, from tiny samples (e.g. stool or bits of skin). This is translated into an enormous amount of digital data stored in various databases. Dr Bork will use computational analysis to make sense of this vast amount of information and begin to draw relationships between the different sets.

For example, when looking at samples from humans with diarrhoea, which causes one-fifth of child deaths worldwide, researchers might be able to find the species of microbe, perhaps even the genes in these, that cause this disease. They hope to then develop an understanding of how to prevent or quickly treat this, perhaps by having a yogurt containing other bacteria that selectively reduce the harmful microbes.

The Royal Society and Académie des sciences Microsoft Award was established to uniquely recognise outstanding contributions to science made by scientists working at the intersection of science and computing. The 2009 award was open to research scientists working in Europe at the interface of the physical or biological sciences and computing.

Dr Bork's earlier research uses computational analysis to mine lists of unwanted side effects of any given drug for information to work out possible new uses for the medication. Many drugs affect more than one target in the body and the resulting side effects, though often unwanted, can be beneficial. His research allows for the discovery of new uses of marketed drugs in the treatment of diseases they were not specifically developed for.

Dr Bork will receive his award during a ceremony at the Académie des sciences, Palais de l'Institut de France in Paris on 17 November 2009.

Professor Denis Weaire FRS, Chair of the judging panel, and representative of the Royal Society, said, "Dr Bork has made an outstanding contribution to the field of computational biology. 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."

Commenting on the award, Dr Peer Bork said, "I am very happy to receive such a prestigious international award. 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 illness 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 wellbeing."

"Peer Bork was among the pioneers that tackled the initial problems in the fast growing domain of bioinformatics. This involved him in a very impressive number of studies and research projects of this emerging field, such as, DNA and protein sequence analysis and annotation, analysis of gene and protein families, literature mining, global analyses of genomes and metagenomes, protein-protein interactions, phylogeny etc", underlines Dr Jean Weissenbach, Member of the Académie des sciences and Director of Genoscope. "Peer Bork is to be perceived as a problem solver in the noble sense, applying in an extremely productive but also highly rigorous manner, state of the art methods in the computational analyses of large scale biological data."

"The winner of this year's  Microsoft  Award is a perfect example of leading European scientists using computing techniques to accelerate progress in science.  Dr Bork's research shows how computational analysis can be used to make sense of a huge amount of data and it is another outstanding example of the vital role computer science plays in tackling some of the world's most complex challenges." said Dr Andrew Herbert, Managing Director of Microsoft Research Cambridge.  "I wish Dr Bork continued success with his research and very much look  forward to hearing more about his work and how the prize will allow him to develop his work further."