IGB receives National Institute of Health funds for new center

By Fatima Farha

The National Institute of Health awarded $9.34 million in funds to the University’s Institute for Genomic Biology to develop a center that will form a collaboration between computational and biological research.

The University responded to an initiative from the National Institute of Health called Big Data to Knowledge, or BD2K. The center at the University is called Knowledge Engine for Genomics, or KnowEnG, and is one of 12 Centers of Excellence working on the project. The center currently has no plans to use the funding toward building a structure.

Victor Jongeneel, senior research scientist at National Center For Supercomputing Applications, said this is an important project because it will bring attention to biological research at the University. 

“This is maybe not the first time, but certainly the first and most visible occurrence of NIH acknowledging that they really would like people who are computer scientists who really know in-depth of how computers work, to work on biomedical problems,” Jongeneel said. “This actually marks a huge opportunity for the University to become more involved with medical research – biomedical research — by contributing its expertise into areas where it’s strong.”

One of the main focuses of the center is the development of a genomic data analysis tool, according to Saurabh Sinha, associate professor in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology. He said the tool will allow for further analysis of data and better understanding regarding the human genome.

“What everyone realizes is that we’ve done very well in generating data and studying biological systems by generating data, but we have lagged behind in interpreting that data,” Sinha said. “The analysis tools, which are basically software and algorithms, have lagged behind.”

“There is a vast amount of biological data out there waiting to be analyzed, and this tool will analyze that data efficiently,” Sinha said.

Charles Blatti, PhD candidate in Computer Science, said that with this tool, a researcher or scientist will be able to better understand their data on genes because they will be able to use knowledge from other users in the public domain. This is called the community knowledge, which is a compilation of various data from many different sources, he said.

“The tool is meant to be, one user has their own particular data and they try to understand their own particular data,” Blatti said. “They like to see what in their data relates to other things in the community knowledge and what in their data is consistent with other data in the community knowledge.”

The KnowEnG project also includes a collaboration with the Mayo Clinic, which will aid with personalized medicine practice and research.

“It’s understandable that the people there have to be at the very forefront of medical research, not just practice,” Sinha said. “And people doing medical research in this day and age have to be connected to the best computational facilities because today, health practice is intimately tied to analysis of genomics data.”

The government has always supported genomics-based health practice by heavily investing in the field, Sinha said. He added that this has been successful in terms of measuring data, but there is still a need for interpretation of that data.

“All the medical practice in the last 150 to 200 years has been with microscopes, today you see it through genomics,” Sinha said. “To make this dream a reality, you need this complementary part, which is analysis. The way it can impact the world is it can complete the dream of genomics-based health practice.”

Fatima can be reached at [email protected]