Stanford-NIST collaboration to give bio-economy a big boost by measuring tiny things

May 20, 2016

On this day in 1875, representatives from 17 nations signed the Meter Convention, establishing a global process for setting the uniform measures that help lay the foundation for commerce, industry and science advances in the 20th Century.

Now, on World Metrology Day, the same steps are being taken to standardize the biological sciences that are a vital part of the 21st Century economy.

Today, the National Institute of Standards & Technology and Stanford University have announced the formation the Joint Initiative for Metrology in Biology (JIMB). This union of academic, government, and industrial researchers aims to spur the already booming bio-economy by providing useful definitions of the equivalent of weights and measures for the molecular products and processes made possible by genomics and genetic engineering.

Accurate and reliable measurements are the underpinnings of modern commerce emerging from biological discoveries JIMB combines NIST's expertise in metrology and its reputation as an unbiased broker with Stanford's prowess in biology and relationships with industry, in an initiative designed to spur an increasingly important sector of the economy. All contributions, results and tools produced through the initiative partners will be free and open to the public benefit.

"To realize biotechnology's tremendous promise, we need to develop measurement platforms - standards, methods, and data - that support innovation within existing and entirely new industries," said Laurie Locascio, director of NIST's Material Measurement Laboratory.

"Stanford is a world-renowned research institution with strong relationships with area biotechnology companies that will continue to inform JIMB's work so that it is as widely applicable as possible."

That theme was echoed by her Stanford counterpart, Ann Arvin, vice provost and dean of research.

"We have long considered NIST to be a key public partner in advancing biomeasurement science," said Arvin, a professor of pediatrics, microbiology and immunology in addition to her administrative duties. "We are delighted that NIST is now establishing a permanent West Coast presence to help advance basic science and promote innovative commercial developments."

Although JIMB is being formally established today following the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the collaborators, the NIST presence at Stanford for developing and systematizing bio-measurements has been growing organically over the past three years.

For instance, one of the early NIST arrivals on campus, Sarah Munro of the agency's Genome-Scale Measurements Group, teamed up last year with Stanford bioengineering professor Drew Endy to convene the inaugural gathering of the Synthetic Biology Standards Consortium (SBSC). More than 100 researchers from government, academia and industry, inside and outside the United States, came together to discuss how to create safe, standardized bio-molecular products by reprogramming the genetic code of simple cells to turn them into bio-factories.

Munro is one of the NIST researchers whose presence at Stanford puts the agency's bio-measurement team close to one of the world's foremost clusters of bio-economic activity. Other JIMB initiatives to foster commercial standards include the Genome in a Bottle consortium (GIAB), which aims to ensure the accurate reporting of human genome sequencing, and the External RNA Controls Consortium (ERCC). RNA is the "messenger" that carries out DNA's instructions to make proteins and other molecular products. ERCC's efforts to ensure the unerring design and accuracy of these molecular messengers underlie commercial efforts to use RNA in therapeutic and productive processes.

JIMB consortia play a vital role in enabling pre-competitive collaborations to standardize industrial processes by creating forums where government, industry and academic researchers are allowed and encouraged to share ideas and techniques without concern that their efforts be misconstrued as collusion. All JIMB consortia are free for industry partners to join, make use of, or contribute to.

"Through this kind of standardization, the research community is able to stand on each other's shoulders and accelerate research in a more efficient and more reproducible way," said DJ Kleinbaum, a JIMB participant and co-founder of Emerald Cloud Laboratories.

"Sustaining improvements in our capacity to accurately measure biology is essential for realizing a better world," added Darlene Solomon, senior vice president and chief technology officer of Agilent Technologies, Inc., which is involved in JIMB.

In addition to using its convening authority to catalyze standards development, JIMB will allow the NIST and Stanford collaborators to commission research to solve measurement problems that impede research or therapy - essentially training new scientists in biometrology - or conducting the translational research that is needed to move the most advanced laboratory techniques closer toward becoming scalable bio-products or services.

To advance fundamental metrology, JIMB is pursuing multiple projects, such as one involving Noah Spies, a NIST scientist who is currently a visiting scholar at the Stanford School of Medicine. His research focuses on improving the affordability and reliability of DNA sequencing, a powerful tool for learning how normal cells become cancerous. Spies is trying to develop processes that make this technique more widely available.

As scientists continue to conduct research on ever-smaller phenomena, JIMB is also sponsoring efforts to develop better tools for working at the level of individual cells. For example, current techniques to measure cells disrupt their normal operation to varying degrees. Some involve adding a test agent that is not a natural constituent of the cell. Other techniques involve breaking the cell and studying its insides. What if we could instead use tiny nanoscale straws to take non-destructive sips of cellular material for measurement and study? Nick Melosh, a Stanford Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Photon Science, is using JIMB funding to accomplish just that.

Roughly a dozen NIST scientists have been working in or with various Stanford labs, with a base presence in the Shriram Center for Bioengineeing and Chemical Engineering, and the memorandum of understanding announced today solidifies the agency's West Coast presence.

Stanford School of Engineering

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