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Biomedical Informatics
Harnessing the power of big data

Emory's Molecular Interaction Center for Functional Genomics (MicFG), launched last May, is the most recent evidence of Emory's growing ability to handle big data—really, really big data. Over the past five years, Emory has become a big player in biomedical informatics, which is dramatically changing how research is conducted and how medicine is practiced.

Biomedical informatics is about using advanced computer tools to manage, sort, analyze, and interpret biomedical information collected from basic, translational, and clinical research studies at Emory and other collaborating research centers across the country. How much data? Taking only one source as an example, the sequence of the approximately 3.3 billion base pairs of the human genome would require more than 3 million pages were this recorded on paper instead of computer chips. In comparison with the complexity of the computer technology that makes possible analysis of data of that magnitude, Hal (in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey) was a bright but barely competent seventh-grader.

At the heart of the big data show at Emory is the four-year-old Center for Comprehensive Informatics (CCI), established and headed by Joel Saltz, who also heads the medical school's Biomedical Informatics Department (BMI), now in its second year. CCI and BMI have established key collaborations, both within and outside Emory.

In education, for example, BMI collaborated on developing biomedical informatics programs in public health and pathology, a new Ph.D. program in the college's math-computer science department, a new informatics track for the master's in clinical research, and a number of short courses aimed at health care workers and researchers.

In patient care, biomedical informatics plays a huge role in the burgeoning field of health services research at Emory. Informatics is used to mine enormous amounts of anonymous data from electronic medical records, for example, to identify hidden causes of unnecessary hospital readmissions, or to determine which diagnostic test provides the best predictive information for the least cost.

In translational research, CCI and BMI played an important role in recent grant renewals for the Atlanta Clinical and Translational Science Institute and the Center for AIDS Research. And in cancer, work carried out at CCI and BMI increasingly helps Emory combine clinical data with genetic, environmental, and behavioral information to yield new insights.


Joel Saltz

Joel Saltz

Saltz came to Emory after having developed clinical informatics systems that changed how pathologists analyze individual tissue samples. Saltz's group created software that can zoom in on one part of a digitized tissue sample, much like what Google Earth does for satellite imagery. Suddenly, previously invisible patterns came into view.

How to make sense of this new data? The team developed informatics to compare individual tissue samples with growing databanks of samples already analyzed and classified by pathologists, thus streamlining and standardizing diagnosis. The next step was to add in broader, more molecular databases.

Saltz says that what is happening at Emory is a perfect example of informatics systems at work—and how their ability to capture and analyze multi-dimensional data at an almost unimaginable scale holds the potential to develop preventive strategies and medical treatments precisely targeted to individual patients.

For example, almost immediately after Emory's CCI was created, it won recognition (and $2.2 million) from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to develop an "in silico" (via computer) center, headed by pathologist Daniel Brat and Saltz. With recently renewed funding, the center analyzes vast amounts of existing genomic, molecular, pathology, and radiology brain tumor data.

The new Emory MicFG, funded with $4.2 million from the NCI as one of nine members in the Cancer Target Discovery and Development (CTD2) national network, is designed to discover new drug targets for cancer by taking advantage of large amounts of available data on genomic alterations in certain tumors. These alterations often lead to rewired protein-protein interactions (PPIs), changes that transmit signals driving tumor growth. Haian Fu, director and principal investigator of the Emory MicFG, believes that mapping these PPI hubs and pathways will identify new molecular targets for which "pathway-perturbing" drugs can be designed. "Our bioinformatics capability is essential for mining the massive amount of cancer genomics data to help us do this," says Fu.

Saltz believes the promise of biomedical informatics has only just begun. He says, "As we understand more about how diseases start and spread and why some patients respond better to some treatments than others, informatics can assume more of the work of creating and testing treatment and prevention hypotheses, just as the aerospace industry uses computer simulations to test ideas before ever building an actual plane." He adds, "It's exciting to be at Emory, with so many creative, innovative thinkers who are helping informatics realize its full potential."

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