Bioinformatics Program Rides Wave of DNA Revolution in Medical Science, Health Care

Photo from EKU bioinformatics lab

With its unique bioinformatics degree option for undergraduates, Eastern Kentucky University is poised at the leading edge of a revolution in health care – one that will embrace DNA analysis to personalize medicine, improve the quality of care and bring down costs. Two academic departments at EKU – Biological Sciences and Computer Science – have joined efforts to establish the academic program, the only one of its kind for undergraduates in Kentucky. The initiative, which is intended to prepare students for the evolving changes in biomedical science, has been aided by more than $2 million in funds from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) over the past decade. Bioinformatics is defined as the analysis of biological information using computers and statistical techniques, or the science of developing and utilizing computer databases and algorithms to accelerate and enhance biological research. The rapidly growing field was the subject of a lengthy feature entitled “A Genome Deluge” in the business section of the Dec. 1 issue of the New York Times. The article points out that within a year or two, the cost of determining a person’s complete DNA blueprint is expected to fall below $1,000, a threshold unthinkable just a few years ago but one that does not take into account the cost of making sense of the data. In other words, “we have the information, but can we decipher it?” said Dr. Patrick Calie, a veteran professor of biology who is coordinating the bioinformatics initiative at EKU. “That’s where bioinformatics comes in.” The Times article cited Isaac Ro, an analyst at Goldman Sachs, who wrote in a recent report, “We believe the field of bioinformatics for genetic analysis will be one of the biggest areas of disruptive innovation in life science tools over the next few years.” The implications are profound, especially concerning diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, among others, and conditions such as hypertension and high cholesterol. “DNA is a potential predictor of the probability of having particular diseases later in life,” Calie said. “For example, some people may have signatures in their DNA that suggest they are more prone to cancer. Or, if they have particular genes that pre-dispose them to Alzheimer’s, they can be given drugs early on before symptoms occur. DNA analysis will allow health care providers to target those folks at highest risk, based on what their genes tell us, and reduce the need to screen so many people.” Over the 12 years of NIH funding, approximately 65 EKU undergraduates have participated in various forms of research at the direction of Calie and other Eastern faculty in the university’s biology and chemistry labs. Many have benefited from bioinformatics internships at the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky. “We complement each other,” Calie said of the relationship between Eastern and the more research-oriented programs at U of L and UK. “We develop the undergraduate talent that can then move into research.” The more recent addition of the bioinformatics degree option, accessible via either the biological sciences or computer science route, means undergraduates can gain invaluable experience in both disciplines “so they can address needs biomedical scientists have in looking at genome data.” Typically, Calie noted, that fusion of academic disciplines takes place at the doctoral level. “The advantage here is that we are capturing students early in the process,” he said, “and giving them more diverse preparation in the life sciences and computer science.” A handful of EKU students are pursuing the bioinformatics degree option, and Calie expects that number to grow. Their services will be in high demand, Calie predicted, adding that likely destinations for graduates include large university-based medical centers and private research foundations. Then, as bioinformatics becomes increasingly important as a “support tool,” more physicians may hire information specialists. “To add to the national need and address the challenges of biomedical science, we have a moral and ethical obligation to train a new generation of scientists to think very differently from how even I was trained 30 years ago,” said Calie, who earned his undergraduate degree at Rutgers University and his master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Tennessee. “In the second decade of the 21st century, we are still using approaches used in the mid-20th century to address medical needs. We have new technologies, new ways of thinking, new ways to analyze data.” Calie said the cooperation between the two diverse academic departments and the administrative support the bioinformatics initiative has enjoyed at all levels of the university stem from a common desire – institutional DNA, so to speak – to meet students’ needs. “Students come to us with a desire to grow and learn, to become something,” Calie said. “We need to prepare them for career opportunities and future academic opportunities in the 21st century. We need to revise and evolve our teaching of young folks so they can be competitive for opportunities out there now in biomedical sciences.”

Published on December 09, 2011