Would you believe that the data mining technology that helps presidential candidates tailor their messages and helps grocery stores decide on sale items could also lead to breakthroughs in cancer research?
Chris Wiggins, assistant professor of applied mathematics, and his Columbia colleagues think that applying targeted algorithms to historical information to predict patterns of future behavior -- data mining -- will have a major impact on the understanding of many human diseases, including cancer. To this end, The National Institutes of Health has awarded Columbia University a five-year, $18.5 million grant to establish a National Center for Biomedical Computing. The center, to be known as the National Center for Multi-Scale Analysis of Genetic and Cellular Networks (MAGNet), will be housed at the Columbia University Medical Center campus in the newly established Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics (C 2B 2).
"Computational biology, a new field of science, has the potential to revolutionize biology and the translation of biology into medicine," said Andrea Califano, MAGNet director and professor of biomedical informatics.
"The goal of the National Centers for Biomedical Computing is to make it easier for the wider scientific community to exploit the power of computers to address fundamental biological and biomedical challenges," said Califano.
"We're trying to build new mathematical and computational approaches that would be directly applicable to medical advances," Wiggins said.
In the last decade, there have been a number of advances in new technology for large-scale data-driven biology, including biotechnology and data mining. And in the last five years, significant advancements have been made in analysis of real-world networks. The intersection of these advances has resulted in the new center.
"Machine learning, or data mining, is about making predictions," Wiggins said. "The challenge for people who are trained in natural sciences, like me, or a biologist, is to make models that are not only predictive but interpretable, because most biologists don't care how well you can predict how an individual gene will respond. The biologist is interested in knowing why it works that way: which parts of the genome are talking to each other -- the parts of the genome where edges exist in the genetic regulatory network that they didn't know before."
Wiggins is also part of a team that received a $3.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for a " Nano-Medicine Center for Mechanical Biology."
"Nano-medicine is not an established field yet," Wiggins said. "Our proposal is really an approach to build nano-scale devices to look at cellular biophysics. The particular problem we are examining is how force is detected and generated. When you push on a cell, how does a cell know, and how does physical information become chemical information, and how does chemical information become genetic information?
"We've already made progress quantifying what I'd call the phenotypic response of the cell to different chemical changes. For example, if I put a drug in a cell it actually moves differently and you can quantify that and see the time scale, how it steps, or the symmetry with which it spreads. Although you see patterns by eye, you really need the data to know if those patterns are something that you are imposing on the data. You need to let the data speak for themselves. We want to take these images and turn them into numbers that will then be interpretable to the biologists. So you turn these numbers into biology and then guide and constrain microscopic modeling, like we are familiar with in physics and applied mathematics."
Wiggins credits information-sharing through the Internet for advancing the field of computational biology, both by allowing researchers around the world to analyze data and by promoting biotechnical, mathematical and computational advances in machine learning.
"I'm very excited about the interdepartmental and interdisciplinary collaborations I'm working on here at Columbia, and the recognition they are now getting," he said. "Each of these grants is a very rare and special award that tells the research community that Columbia is a leader in biological computation."