May 18, 2011
For centuries, biologists focused on the collection of data, from Darwin’s Beagle voyage cataloging new species to the Human Genome Project’s DNA mapping. Today’s biologists are confronted with a flood of data, a fire-hose torrent of genetic and clinical information that only builds with the spread of fast sequencing and electronic medical records. In the 21st century, new methods are sorely needed to translate that data bounty into practical knowledge that can revolutionize science and medicine.
The Silvio O. Conte Center at the University of Chicago, established in October 2011 by nearly $14 million of grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and the Chicago Biomedical Consortium, will be in the vanguard of this new type of science. Led by Andrey Rzhetsky, PhD, professor of Medicine and Human Genetics at the University of Chicago Medical Center, the Conte Center will for the first time apply the power of computational data-mining to the problem of what causes neuropsychiatric disorders.
“A great deal of data already exists, yet nobody is already looking at it the way we plan to do and we have very smart people on this team,” said Rzhetsky, who is also a senior fellow of the Computation Institute at the University of Chicago and Institute for Genomics and Systems Biology. “When you have multiple communities that partially study the same subject you can get a kind of three-dimensional picture of a phenomenon.”
The center is a multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional effort, uniting the computational and psychiatric knowledge of 15 lead investigators from 7 schools. With such an ambitious scientific enterprise, there is also a complexity to structuring the grant proposal. Throughout the process, Arete worked with Rzhetsky and the other investigators to strategically organize the Conte Center proposal.
“Essentially, they helped us at multiple stages," Rzhetsky said. "They helped come up with a management plan, and gave us advice on the general organization of the center. It was very useful.”
Matthew Christian, co-director of Arete and assistant vice president for Research Program Development, said his office assisted Rzhetsky and his co-investigators in transforming their ambitious idea into a practical and attractive grant proposal.
“When someone is doing science that is off the charts, the key to writing a winning grant is knowing what the agency wants," Christian said. "What Arete brings is knowledge of how to package a grant to sell an amazing scientific idea to a funding agency.”
The mission of the Conte Center is to find new insights in neuropsychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and depression by combining data from different technical approaches. For example, genetic association studies of psychiatric disorders have located gene variants associated with the disorders, but have been able to explain only a small percentage of their heritability. Researchers have also collected detailed clinical records on psychiatric patients and the efficacy and side effects of available treatments, but the potentially valuable information within those records remains largely untapped.
“We have seen relatively few major breakthroughs in drug development for psychiatric disorders,” Christian said. “What this program allows for is for people to really innovate in terms of drug discovery and understanding phenotypes in different disorders in ways we've never understood them. We can discover things we don't even know we can discover yet, by looking in places that nobody else is looking.”
Rather than focusing on just genetics, clinical records, or literature mining, the Conte Center will apply computational analysis to data from all of these methods to discover new network relationships between genes, environmental factors, and clinical phenotypes. The results will create novel hypotheses that could alter how experts define and treat neuropsychiatric disorders, to be tested by researchers from the Institute for Genomics and Systems Biology at the University of Chicago.
“We definitely have one of the strongest genomics groups in the country, we have probably one of the strongest statistical genetics groups, and we have excellent world-renowned experts in phenotypes," Rzhetsky said. "It's exciting because there is potential, but now we have to work hard to get there.”
By Rob Mitchum