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Friday, July 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Brain institute already faces turnover at top

Seattle Times business reporter

The founding director of the Allen Institute for Brain Science has resigned less than a year after the institute started, but representatives for the $100 million Paul Allen-backed project say it is still on track.

Mark Boguski, a national leader in the effort to use computers to crunch information for the Human Genome Project, quietly left the institute's top job several weeks ago. He was recruited amid great fanfare to start the Seattle research center in September.

There are other signs the project may not be moving as fast as originally anticipated. It is releasing data more slowly than first planned, and it has not announced collaborations with academic or industry partners.

The main idea Boguski worked on was the "Allen Brain Atlas" — a map that shows how 20,000 genes in the mouse brain give rise to the circuitry of a trillion nerve cells. The information is being loaded into a publicly available database, so scientists everywhere can use it to understand human brain diseases, like Alzheimer's and depression, or gather basic insights into learning and memory.

The ambitious undertaking has attracted a who's who of advisers that includes DNA's co-discoverer, James Watson, and others from Harvard, Caltech and biotechnology company Genentech.

Boguski could not be reached for comment. He still has a position at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Michael Nank, a spokesman for Allen's Vulcan development company, said Boguski's departure was not bitter.

"Mark came on board to start up the institute, and that's one of his strengths," Nank said. "Once it was up and running, he decided to move on to other opportunities."

One of Boguski's deputies, Allan Jones, has moved into the institute's top role on the project as senior director of operations. But the institute is also looking for several other senior managers — a chief operating officer, and directors of neuroscience and external relations. The institute has about 25 people, and is planning to grow to about 40 by year's end. It has set up its labs and offices at a space in Fremont once occupied by an Allen-backed biotech startup.

Arthur Toga, a professor of neurology at UCLA who serves on the institute's scientific advisory board, said Boguski was effective at recruiting people with a blend of skills, establishing a framework for producing data and setting priorities. But now, Toga said the institute is moving out of its founding conceptual phase, and into a period where it mainly needs to roll out data and double-check its accuracy.

"Mark is extremely visionary and forward-thinking and he needs to be doing things like that," Toga said. "My understanding is there were a number of things Mark wanted to do that the institute didn't need done. It was a matter of having a slightly different focus."

The institute has kept a low profile. When it was unveiled in September, organizers said they would make its first genomic data release to the public in the first quarter of 2004. The group did make an abbreviated release in March, but now expects the first major data release in the fourth quarter.

Nank said the aim is still the same — to map the 20,000 mouse-brain genes by 2006. Over the next half year, the institute said it plans to boost its gene mapping capacity 15-fold.

When the institute was started, Allen's organizers said they hoped to form numerous strategic collaborations and attract outside donors and a steady stream of money from the National Institutes of Health to secure the organization's future. The Brain Institute has not yet announced any of those milestones, but Nank said the institute is working on them.

Despite Vulcan's recent efforts to tighten its belt, Nank said it has not wavered on its $100 million commitment to the institute. He would not disclose how many years the commitment runs, but did say it is earmarked to support the institute's first project, the mapping of the mouse brain.

Toga said his colleagues around the country remain enthusiastic about the effort.

"This is a project that everyone recognizes has major value, and would be impossible under the (federal funding) system. It's an important development," Toga said. "And they're moving fast. In an academic model, you could never move this fast, to find people, hire them, and get going like they have."

Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or ltimmerman@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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