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Untying the Knots in Big Data and Big Biology: Q&A with Andrew Su

Xconomy San Diego — 

As big data becomes increasingly important in using genomic information, the National Institutes of Health is funding a sweeping initiative to help untie the knots that make it hard to extract and apply meaningful information from huge biomedical data sets.

The program was conceived, in the words of NIH Director Francis Collins, to “overcome the obstacles to maximizing the utility of the mammoth data sets that are emerging at an accelerated pace.” The funding is intended to develop innovative approaches, software, computational tools, and other resources needed to pull meaningful information from massive data sets on everything from genomics to patients’ medical records.

In San Diego, The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) and Scripps Translational Science Institute will get about $4.4 million in NIH funding announced last week that is intended to help researchers find new ways to analyze and use increasingly complex biomedical data. The institutes are part of a newly formed consortium designated to receive a total of $11 million to establish a new UCLA Center of Excellence for Big Data Computing. The center’s director is Peipei Ping, a UCLA professor of medicine and physiology whose research is currently focused on understanding proteome biology in cardiovascular medicine. Proteomics refers to the study of proteins.

Andrew Su

Andrew Su

“We will be developing a variety of technologies for proteomics,” says Andrew Su, a TSRI associate professor who is a co-director of the new center. In an e-mail exchange over the weekend, Su said new techniques are needed for researchers to better identify post-translational modifications in proteins and to correlate changes to genetic variants. (My Q&A with Su is below.)

The new center also will tap into the Scripps Wellderly Genome Resource, a DNA data set that currently has genomic information on more than 1,300 people who have lived at least 80 years without developing any chronic disease. Among other things, researchers at the Scripps Translational Science Institute and Scripps Health are compiling the data to provide a master reference of what a healthy human genome looks like.

NIH is making an initial investment of nearly $32 million in fiscal 2014 to establish 11 similar “centers of excellence” throughout the United States. They include new centers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Stanford University; UC Santa Cruz, Harvard Medical School, and the University of Southern California.

The agency also provided funding for a 12th program, called ENIGMA, focused on human brain diseases that is collecting … Next Page »

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