Friday, April 27, 2012

Science showcase

Celebration of Science welcomes NIH director, SAC meeting focuses on computational biology

CELEBRATING RESEARCH: From left, Bernstein, Baselga, Babitt and Haber

Characterizing new disorders, getting around barriers that hinder translation of discoveries into therapeutic benefit, and supporting young investigators pursuing truly innovative science were among the priorities National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, discussed in his keynote address at the April 18 Celebration of Science, held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the hospital’s Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) on April 19. In addressing the challenges of threatened NIH budget cutbacks, Collins stressed that highlighting the economic benefits of medical research may have the greatest influence on Washington decision-makers.

Offering a glimpse of the breadth and depth of research at the MGH, the first day of the two-day event began with an annual poster session featuring 285 posters from MGH research teams, 16 of which were named posters of distinction. Also featured were posters from students at the Timilty Middle School and East Boston High School, who developed science projects with MGH mentors. Prior to Collins’ address, recipients of the hospital’s annual research awards described the work for which they were honored. This year’s recipients are:

  • Jodie Babitt, MD, of the MGH Program in Membrane Biology/Division of Nephrology, received the 2012 Howard Goodman Award for studies of how the body maintains iron levels, particularly the role of the hormone hepcidin, which controls the release of iron stored in the liver. Her team is investigating mechanisms behind the anemia of chronic kidney disease and strategies to treat it;
  • José Baselga, MD, PhD, chief of Hematology/Oncology and associate director of the MGH Cancer Center, accepted the 2011 Joseph Martin Award for Clinical Research for a paper in the Dec. 7 New England Journal of Medicine. The studied protocol, which combines an estrogen inhibitor with a kidney cancer drug, has changed the standard treatment for women with estrogen-receptor-positive breast tumors; and
  • Bradley Bernstein, MD, PhD, MGH pathologist, was honored with the 2011 Martin Award for Basic Research for a March 24 Nature paper that mapped the structure of chromosomes in nine different types of human cells, identifying regulatory regions that control the   expression of genes involved in specific cellular functions.

The April 19 SAC meeting began with the annual update from Daniel Haber, MD, PhD, chair of the Executive Committee on Research, and a look ahead from Harry Orf, PhD, who recently rejoined the MGH as senior vice president for Research. In the departmental research updates Robert Martuza, MD, chief of Neurosurgery, described new approaches to treating stroke, brain injury and depression, and efforts to combat the deadly brain tumor glioblastoma. Harry Rubash, MD, chief of Orthopædics, discussed projects designed to speed healing of fractures, better understand the motion of healthy and damaged joints, and improve the results of joint replacement. He introduced William Harris, MD, DSc, founder of what is now the Harris Orthopædics Lab, who briefly described his work eliminating a major cause of hip implant failure.

Ramnik Xavier, MD, PhD, chief of the Gastroenterology Division, outlined investigations into factors affecting energy balance in obesity and weight loss – including those involved with gastric bypass surgery – as well as treatment of hepatitis C infection, the role of aspirin in colorectal cancer and the mechanisms behind inflammatory bowel disease. In reviewing his department’s numerous research accomplishments, Dennis Ausiello, MD, chief of Medicine, emphasized how the scientific environment of the MGH continues to inspire researchers to address the most challenging problems of the day.

With the theme “Applying Computational Biology to Biomedical Research,” the afternoon session explored the challenges of applying vast amounts of genetic data to medical science. Aviv Regev, PhD, of the Broad Institute, described her team’s investigation of the complex molecular circuits behind the inflammatory response, including efforts to identify genes that regulate those circuits and the effects of circuit disruption. Mark Daly, PhD, director of the MGH Analytic and Translational Genetics Unit, discussed how the expansion of truly targeted therapies will require the ability to identify which gene variants actually cause diseases and disorders. Zak Kohane, MD, PhD, of Children’s Hospital, noted that gaining scientific insights by analysis of electronic medical records is currently limited, since records are structured to meet billing needs and current analytic systems are unable to interpret important clinical details.

Daly, Kohane and Orf were joined by physicist John Quackenbush, PhD, of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, in a panel discussion of critical questions in computational medicine. Panel moderator Sridhar Ramaswamy, MD, of the MGH Cancer Center, noted that, although costs of performing genome screens have dropped dramatically, the costs of analyzing the resulting data continue to rise. Quackenbush stressed that translating biomedical research from a laboratory science to an information science will require both a revision of focus by analysts and engineers and better appreciation of the value of computational science on the part of biomedical researchers.

“This year’s discussion of how we can address the ever-increasing demands for sophisticated computational biology was probably the most lively in recent years, with some great input from SAC members,” says Haber, who is also director of the MGH Cancer Center. “We have both a challenge and an opportunity to be at the forefront of this revolution that will shape the biomedical research of the future.” 

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