Medicine is in the midst of a flood of genomic data. From the genomes of individuals to the genomes of our microbiomes there is an increasing need to develop computational methods to analyze medical data.
“The forefront of medicine appreciates that health and treatment of disease is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution,” said Derek Wildman, Professor of Molecular and Integrative Physiology, who is leading the effort to create a new research theme at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB). “The promise of precision medicine is to develop treatments that are directed to each individual’s genetic and physical makeup. Precision medicine requires Big Data solutions, and the new theme in conjunction with other IGB themes and University wide initiatives such as CompGen will tackle the challenges associated with the analysis of thousands of genomes and the vast array of data contained in electronic health records.”
Currently, a tumor genome takes several months to analyze, during which time patients are at continued risk. Fetal DNA testing during pregnancy is now recognized as a safer alternative to amniocentesis. Genetic risk assessment through genotyping of DNA variants that are associated with breast and ovarian cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, and cystic fibrosis are now conducted on a daily basis. Insight into complex diseases such as diabetes, mental health disorders, and global health crises in infectious disease is gained through genomic and epigenomic approaches.
“One area of research focus is women’s and children’s health issues such as preterm birth,” said Wildman. “This devastating syndrome occurs in one of every nine U.S. pregnancies and comes at a cost of $26 billion per year. Infants born prematurely are at greater risk for developing a large range of health problems later in life, and prematurity is a leading cause of infant mortality and morbidity. Because there is no single cause for preterm birth, a precision medicine approach is necessary to reduce its incidence.”
Combining genetic data with the multitude of different environmental exposures each individual faces throughout their life requires computational breakthroughs that have the possibility to change how medicine is treated and even conceived. This new theme will be dedicated to improving the lives of individuals in Illinois and across the globe through genomic research. It will use techniques in statistics, evolutionary biology, and medicine to unravel the complex interactions between human behavior and genetics that ultimately result in resilience or susceptibility to disease, and employ comparative and evolutionary genomic techniques to understand the origins and histories of human health and disease.
“Computational genomic medicine sits directly at the interface where science meets society,” said Wildman. “Members of this new theme are eager to make a lasting impact on the health of Illinois residents as well as in the rest of the world.”
Photos By: Kathryn Faith.