By John Easton // April 13, 2013
Two major gifts will build momentum behind the University of Chicago’s leadership in biomedical computation by assembling experts in the field and furnishing them with the tools to use “big data” to understand disease and solve today’s health-related challenges.
These two gifts will fund related projects that are central to a much larger plan at the University that includes multiple data-driven discovery programs to improve health and medical care.
The gifts were announced at an April 8 gathering of local corporate leaders hosted by Margot and Tom Pritzker, chairman and CEO of The Pritzker Organization, at the Park Hyatt Chicago. Pritzker, a University board trustee, organized the dinner meeting to boost corporate awareness of big-data biomedical research and to discuss how this work could become a regional economic engine.
Karen and Jim Frank, president and CEO of Wheels Inc., pledged $10 million. This includes $9 million to provide start-up funds and recruit a director for a proposed Institute for Computational Biology and Medicine and $1 million to support growth in orthopedics. This institute will serve as a hub for the collection, analysis and distribution of biomedical and health care information, ranging from genomic data to de-identified electronic medical records.
Carole and Gordon Segal, the founders of Crate & Barrel, made a substantial pledge to support the Pancreatic Cancer Genomic Medicine Initiative, which will use genetic information to improve assessment, decision-making and treatment for pancreatic cancer patients. The goal of the program is to discover gene-based biomarkers that can predict outcomes, estimate treatment toxicities, speed discovery of new drugs and create a model that could be reproduced at academic medical centers across the nation.
“These generous gifts enable us to take a major step forward in realizing the promise of data collection and analysis on a massive scale, and bringing the discoveries it yields into the day-to-day practice of medicine,” said Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, who spoke about the institution’s strategic vision as a place for translational discovery.
Kenneth Polonsky, MD, executive vice president for medical affairs at the University of Chicago and dean of the Biological Sciences Division and Pritzker School of Medicine, who also spoke at the event, believes the medicine community needs to understand complex data in order to identify opportunities for new advances.
“Our vision is to define disease at the genetic and molecular level with much greater specificity than is currently available,” Polonsky said. “This will improve our ability to predict, prevent, diagnose and treat different subsets of disease that, in many cases, we currently lump together. It will require access to gigantic data sets, innovative manipulation of those data, and vast computing power.”
The Institute for Computational Biology and Medicine will bring together experts from many aspects of biology who are devoted to data-intensive biomedical discovery. Researchers in the institute will strive to invent new methods of extracting biomedical information from large, varied data sets. These data sources will allow them to generate fresh hypotheses about health and disease, the evolution of biological form and function, and the intricate relationship of organisms to each other and their environment.
By enabling researchers to test these ideas through statistical analysis, computer modeling and simulation — which are faster and more cost-effective than experimental testing — the institute will accelerate the development of biomedical knowledge and, in the long run, transform the practice of medicine.
“We are delighted to support the initiative that Dean Polonsky has identified as one that is core to the direction of many of our research initiatives and one that has the potential to revolutionize the direction of medical research” said Jim Frank, a trustee of the University of Chicago Medical Center since 1992.
“This is a bold and inspiring approach to uncovering new knowledge,” he added. “The outstanding experts on computational biology who already work at the University of Chicago will be able, with support of the new institute, to leverage their knowledge and take us to the next level of discovery.”
The pancreatic cancer initiative is more tightly focused, using genomic and physiological data to improve care for patients with this disease. The Segals’ motivation to fund this effort was personal. Last winter, within about three weeks, two of their good friends were diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer.
“We were surprised that this happened so suddenly to two of our closest friends,” said Gordon Segal, a University of Chicago Medical Center board trustee. “But we were astonished to discover how little is known about this kind of cancer.”
What came as an added shock, Segal said, was finding out that treatment for patients with advanced disease has not significantly improved in 20 years. About 80 percent of pancreatic cancers spread beyond the organ by the time of diagnosis; life expectancy for such patients is measured in months.
So, the Segals turned to a friend, Kevin White, PhD, the James and Karen Frank Family Professor of Human Genetics and director of the Institute for Genomics and Systems Biology (IGSB) at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
White already was working with collaborators Kevin Roggin, MD, associate professor of surgery, and William Dale, MD, professor and chief of geriatrics and palliative medicine, to use the genetics of pancreatic cancer to guide clinical practice. Thanks to the Segals’ gift, the pancreatic-cancer effort will sequence the genomes of tumors from up to 225 patients from the University of Chicago Medicine-NorthShore University HealthSystem pancreatic cancer program over the next three years. The team has so far sequenced genomes from more than 30 pancreatic cancer patients.
That data will be compared with genetic sequences of thousands of tumors already collected by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), including more than 500 pancreatic cancers. It will be cross-referenced with physical and functional, as well as cognitive and psychological, information collected from patients during their care.
That information, offering a panoramic view of pancreatic cancer, will be subjected to intensive computation using the Bionimbus Cloud, developed by White and IGSB colleague Robert L. Grossman, PhD, professor of medicine and Computation Institute Senior Fellow.
“The goal is to generate actionable clinical information that can inform the care of patients and fuel advances,” White said. “This is an opportunity to jumpstart a genome-guided approach to treatment.”
Working with Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Chicago has the assets to become a biomedical big-data hub. Together, they have experts in human, statistical and evolutionary genetics. The Computation Institute has extensive experience with huge data sets and is moving into biomedical issues. Campus-based efforts such as the IGSB and the Conte Center use computational data-mining to understand genetic networks. Argonne is home to the Beagle, one of the world’s most powerful computers devoted to biomedical research.