Biophysicist comes home to conduct DNA research

Returning to UBC from Stanford was an easy decision says researcher Andre Marziali

by Andy Poon staff writer

After almost a decade south of the border, biophysicist Andre Marziali is glad to be back on his old stomping grounds.

The 33-year-old assistant professor in UBC's Physics and Astronomy Dept. returned to his alma mater last fall from Stanford University where he led a team of engineers and physicists in the development of an integrated, modular system for DNA sequencing.

For Marziali, who received his undergraduate science degree in Engineering Physics at UBC in 1989, the move of his young family back to the Lower Mainland was an easy decision.

"My wife and I are both from Vancouver and we really wanted to get back here," says Marziali, who has a five-and-a-half-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter. "Plus, there was a great career opportunity at UBC to teach and pursue my own research."

With 25 per cent of the province's university professors expected to retire within the next four years, the fact that Marziali has bucked the perceived trend of young university teachers and researchers fleeing to the United States is good news.

"The combination of the retirement bulge over the next decade with the brain drain to the U.S. and Eastern Canada from this province--caused primarily by the erosion of salaries in B.C. universities--will make the problem of recruitment and retention of outstanding scholars the major challenge for UBC," says Derek Atkins, associate vice-president, Academic Planning. "It is heartening then that despite this, the quality of UBC faculty and research is enabling us to attract quality people such as Marziali."

Marziali's modular system for large-scale DNA sequencing allows researchers to dramatically speed up the laborious task of identifying numerous samples of DNA strands. Using devices that automatically perform many of the steps needed, Marziali is able to analyse up to 10,000 samples a day.

At present, he is working on adding another component to the system--the Thermocycler. He will use it in research at the B.C. Cancer Agency's Genome Sequence Centre headed by UBC Nobel laureate Michael Smith. The centre is the first research centre in Canada devoted to decoding human genes. It collaborates with laboratories worldwide on the International Human Genome Project whose goal is to decode all of the human genes by 2005.

At present, it costs up to 50 cents to sequence each DNA base. Marziali would like to see that reduced to a penny, thereby dramatically lowering the cost of genome research.

By making DNA sequencing cheaper, more work can be done to further explore and understand human gene function as well as the genomes of other organisms.

In fact, Marziali says Smith was an important factor in his decision to return to UBC.

"Michael Smith was instrumental in getting me back up here," he says. "Besides the fact that I love to teach, a large reason why I'm here is to support the work of the B.C. Cancer Agency `s Genome Sequence Centre."

To help support his research, Marziali is awaiting word on a $1.2 million grant from the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) based in Bethesda, Md.