2018 News

LIN28 Selectively Modulates Subclass Let-7 miRNAs
The proposed model of selective Let-7 microRNA suppression modulated by the bipartite LIN28 binding.(Image courtesy of Zhang Lab)

A new study led by Chaolin Zhang, PhD , assistant professor of systems biology , published today as the cover story of  Molecular Cell , sheds light on a critical RNA-binding protein that is widely researched for its role in stem cell biology and its ties to cancer progression in multiple tissues.

Califano-Cancer Bottleneck
The N of 1 trial leverages systems biology techniques to analyze genomic information from a patient’s tumor. The goal is to identify key genes, called master regulators (green circles), which, while not mutated, are necessary for cancer cell survival. Master regulators are aberrantly activated by patient-specific mutations (X symbols) in driver genes (yellow circles), which are mutated in large cancer cohorts. Passenger mutations (blue circles) that are not upstream of master regulators have no effect on the tumor. (Image: Courtesy of the Califano Lab)

Califano OncoTreat
Schematic diagram for the OncoTreat clinical pipeline. The pipeline consists of a series of pre-computed components, including a reference set of more than 13,000 tumor expression profiles representing 35 different tumor types, a collection of 28 tissue context-specific interactomes and a database of context-specific mechanism of action (MoA) for >400 FDA-approved drugs and investigational compounds in oncology. The transcriptome of the perturbed cell lines is profiled at low cost by PLATE-Seq. The process begins with the expression profile of a single patient sample, which is compared against the tumor databank to generate a tumor gene expression signature. This signature is interpreted by VIPER using a context-matched interactome to identify the set of most dysregulated proteins, which constitute the regulators of the tumor cell state – tumor checkpoint. These proteins are then aligned against the drugs’ and compounds’ MoA database, to prioritize compounds able to invert the activity pattern of the tumor checkpoint. (Image courtesy of Califano Lab)

Project GENIE
Richard Carvajal (left) and Raul Rabadan are lead PIs on Project GENIE

Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) has recently joined 11 new institutions to collaborate on Project GENIE, an ambitious consortium organized by the  American Association for Cancer Research . An international cancer registry built through data sharing,  Project GENIE , which stands for Genomics Evidence Neoplasia Information Exchange, brings together leading institutions in cancer research and treatment in order to provide the statistical power needed to improve clinical decision-making, particularly in the case of rare cancers and rare genetic variants in common cancers. Additionally, the registry, established in 2016, is powering novel clinical and translational research. In its first two years, Project GENIE has been able to accumulate and make public more than 39,000 cancer genomic records, de-identified to maintain patient privacy. 

Molly Przeworski Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award
Molly Przeworski

Molly Przeworski, PhD , professor of  biological sciences and of systems biology , has received the Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award for exceptional teaching. A leading population geneticist, Dr. Przeworski is one of eight recipients of the annual award, which recognizes faculty across a range of academic activities, including scholarship, University citizenship and professional involvement, with an emphasis on the instruction and mentoring of undergraduate and graduate students. 

The recipients this year were presented with the award at an April 11 event held at Columbia’s Italian Academy.

“It is wonderful to see the work we do teaching and mentoring graduate students recognized,” says Dr. Przeworski. “I have been really lucky to attract phenomenal students and postdocs, and find that interacting with them is one of the most rewarding aspects of what I do.”

Tatonetti Heritability Image

Each subgraph in this image is a family reconstructed from EHR data: Each node represents an individual and the colors represent different health conditions. (Figure: Nicholas Tatonetti, PhD, Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons).

Acne is highly heritable, passed down through families via genes, but anxiety appears more strongly linked to environmental causes, according to a new study that analyzed data from millions of electronic health records to estimate the heritability of hundreds of different traits and conditions. 

As reported by the Columbia Newsroom, the findings, published in Cell by researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and NewYork-Presbyterian could streamline efforts to understand and mitigate disease risk—especially for diseases with no known disease-associated genes.

Judith in the lab
Judith Kribelbauer

As a child growing up in a small town in Germany, Judith Kribelbauer excelled in science, counting chemistry and mathematics as her two favorite subjects from grade school through high school. After high school graduation, she attended the Ruprecht-Karls University in Heidelberg to pursue a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, which she completed in 2012. 

Becoming more serious about pursuing scientific research, Kribelbauer, who is graduating this May with a PhD in the Systems Biology Integrated Program, moved to the U.S. to work as a graduate exchange student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC) before enrolling at Columbia University in 2013. At UNC, using SHAPE-MaP sequencing technology, she researched the structural basis of the HIV-1 RNA frame-shift element, a sequence that causes ribosomes to shift reading frames, therefore producing truncated proteins.  

Columbia’s collaborative environment—the chance to work with researchers spanning areas from biology to chemistry and physics to computer science—is what drew her to the University and ultimately to concentrating in systems biology. 

Sebastien Weyn

Sebastien Weyn, a graduating PhD student in the Chaolin Zhang lab, has been awarded the Titus M. Coan Prize for Excellence in Research. Weyn, who intends to participate in the May 13 Hooding Ceremony at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (P&S), is one of two graduates who has received the award, bestowed annually by P&S. Weyn is being recognized in the area of outstanding basic cell and molecular research. 

“I am happy to represent Systems Biology for the award, which together with previous DSB winners, showcase the important biological contributions coming from the department,” says Weyn. “Winning this award also speaks greatly to my mentor, Chaolin, and his vision and insight in the field.”

Work in the Zhang lab concentrates on the study of the nervous system and its underlying molecular mechanisms. The group focuses on the function of post-transcriptional gene regulation, in particular a level of molecular regulation called alternative RNA splicing, in the nervous system.

2018 Graduating Students
From left to right: Judith Krilbelbauer, Jonathan Chang, Sebastien Weyn.

Congratulations to our systems biology PhD students and lab members who are set to graduate this Commencement season. 

The following graduate students are expected to attend the May 13, 2018, Hooding Ceremony at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. We wish them all the best!

Jonathan Chang

Biomedical Informatics

The Vitkup Lab

 

Judith Krilbelbauer 

Integrated Program

The labs of Harmen Bussemaker and Richard Mann

 

Sebastien Weyn

Integrated Program

The Zhang Lab

May 7, 2018

From Code to Cure

Columbia Magazine

Published Spring 2018 cover story , Columbia Magazine

As reported by David J. Craig, senior editor at Columbia Magazine , we are living in the age of big data, and with every link we click, every message we send, and every movement we make, we generate torrents of information. In the past two years, the world has produced more than 90 percent of all the digital data that has ever been created. New technologies churn out an estimated 2.5 quintillion bytes per day. 

Today, researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) are using the power of data to identify previously unrecognized drug side effects; they are predicting outbreaks of infectious diseases by monitoring Google search queries and social-media activity; and they are developing novel cancer treatments by using predictive analytics to model the internal dynamics of diseased cells. These ambitious projects, many of which involve large interdisciplinary teams of computer scientists, engineers, statisticians, and physicians, represent the future of academic research.

Raul Rabadan
Raul Rabadan

Systems Biology Professor Raul Rabadan, Phd , has been awarded a Philip A. Sharp Innovation in Collaboration award from Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C) , a group established by film and media leaders to fund cancer research projects that have the potential to quickly deliver new therapies to patients. Dr. Rabadan has received the award jointly with collaborator Dan A. Landau, MD, PhD, of Weill Cornell Medicine.

A theoretical physicist whose expertise lies in the cross section of mathematical genomics, tumor evolution, and cancer research, Dr. Rabadan will work together with Dr. Landau on their winning project, “Cupid-seq—high throughput transcriptomic spatial mapping of immune-tumor interactions in the micro-environment.”  The investigators will devise a novel sequencing technique and computational method for better understanding immune recognition mechanism in glioblastoma. Dr. Rabadan is currently a principal investigator on the SU2C-National Science Foundation Drug Combination Convergence Team and Dr. Lau is a 2016 recipient of a SU2C Innovative Research Grant.

No Read Left Behind

Gradually eliminating low-affinity binding sites identified by NRLB (from left to right) results in a gradual reduction of gene expression (white); Credit: Mann Lab/Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute

As reported  by the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, Columbia University researchers have developed a new computational method for deciphering DNA’s most well-kept secrets, and this new algorithm may help find the links between genes and disease. 

The researchers included lead PI at Zuckerman  Richard Mann , PhD, with collaborator, Harmen Bussemaker , PhD, both faculty members of the Department of Systems Biology. They recently published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences .

Andrea Califano
Andrea Califano, Dr, chair of Columbia's Department of Systems Biology

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) has awarded Andrea Califano, Dr, a new grant in support of his work to develop a comprehensive library of regulatory interactions within molecularly defined cellular populations and molecular determinants (master regulators) of individual cells’ state. This will arm scientists with a unique resource to study biology at the individual cell level and to gain further insight into the fundamental understanding of molecularly distinct cell types.

With the support of CZI, founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, Dr. Califano, chair of Columbia’s Department of Systems Biology, and his group will apply their computational methods that accurately and systematically measure and analyze regulatory interaction at the single cell level to elucidate distinct cellular states and to establish both cell-state markers, as well as the proteins that are causally responsible for implementing that state. 

Harmen and Tuuli
Harmen Bussemaker (left) and Tuuli Lappalainen

Harmen Bussemaker, PhD, and Tuuli Lappalainen, PhD, have received an inaugural Roy and Diana Vagelos Precision Medicine Pilot Award for a collaboration that will bridge quantitative genetics and mechanistic biology to obtain a mechanistic understanding of regulatory effects of genetic variants in humans.

Drs. Bussemaker and Lappalainen, both faculty in Columbia’s Department of Systems Biology, represent one of three winning proposals out of a pool of 56 applications. Their project titled, “Elucidating the tissue-specific molecular mechanisms underlying disease associations through integrative analysis of genetic variation and molecular network data”, will help to advance Columbia University’s efforts in precision medicine basic science research. 

Organoids bladder cancer

Organoids created from the bladder cancers of patients mimic the characteristics of each patient’s tumor and may be used in the future to identify the best treatment for each patient. Images: Michael Shen

Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) and NewYork-Presbyterian researchers have created patient-specific bladder cancer organoids that mimic many of the characteristics of actual tumors. As reported by CUIMC, the use of organoids, tiny 3-D spheres derived from a patient’s own tumor, may be useful in the future to guide treatment of patients.

The study was published April 5 in the online edition of Cell.

Coauthors
Study lead coauthors Nathan Johns (left), systems biology graduate student in the Wang Lab, and Antonio Gomes, former member of the Wang Lab, now at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Advances in synthetic biology have already spurred innovation in the areas of drug development, chemical production and health diagnostics. To help push the field even further, and potentially at a more rapid pace, a new, comprehensive resource devised by Columbia University investigators will help synthetic biologists better engineer designs for complex biological systems.

A team of researchers, led by Harris Wang, PhD, assistant professor of systems biology and of pathology and cell biology, report the characterization and analysis of thousands of bacterial regulatory elements in different species of bacteria. The paper , published March 19, appears in Nature Methods .

Harris Wang in Lab

Harris Wang, PhD, assistant professor of systems biology, has been named a 2018 Schaefer Research Scholar for his novel approach to explore the role that bacteria cells in our gastrointestinal tract play on the efficacy of drug therapies.

Dr. Wang, who has a joint appointment in the Department of Pathology and Cell Biology, develops new tools and platforms to determine how genomes in microbial populations form, maintain themselves, and change over time, across many environments. His goal is to use synthetic biology approaches to engineer ecologies of microbial populations, such as those found in the gut and elsewhere in the human body, in ways that could improve human health.

The project that won the support of the Schaefer Scholars Research program centers on developing a platform approach to systematically determine new mechanisms by which specific members of the human microbiome metabolize and alter drugs and pharmaceuticals. Dr. Wang and his group intend to evaluate the impact of the microbiome on drug efficacies using cellular and animal models, focusing on the gut microbiome—an important and underexplored area of research.

Two new precision medicine tests, born out of research from the Califano Lab, that look beyond cancer genes to identify novel therapeutic targets have just received New York State Department of Health approval and are now available to both oncologists and cancer researchers for use at the front lines of patient care. As reported by Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC), the tests are based on research conducted by CUIMC investigators—and could pave the way for a more precise approach to cancer therapy and help find effective drugs when conventional approaches to precision medicine have failed.

 

In neurons lacking Rbfox, the AIS is disrupted, impairing neuron’s ability to fire action potentials.
The Rbfox protein is a master regulator of neuronal RNA splicing that is demonstrated to be pivotal to establish the mature RNA splicing program in neurons. In neurons lacking this protein, an axonal cytoskeletal structure called “axon initial segment” is disrupted, impairing neuron’s ability to fire action potentials. (Image courtesy of Zhang Lab).

Neurons, or nerve cells, in the brain communicate with each other by transmitting electric signals, or firing action potentials, through long processes named axons (which send out signals) and dendrites (which receive signals). The capability of firing action potentials, among other functions of mature neurons, has to be acquired during development and neuronal maturation. However, the molecular mechanisms governing this complex process are so far poorly understood.

Feb 7-8 Cancer Genomics Symposium

Pictured above, Adolfo Ferrando (left), professor of pediatrics and of pathology and cell biology at Columbia, with Luis Arnes, associate research scientist and first-place winner of the symposium's poster competition; For photos from the symposium, visit the gallery page . Credit: Lydia Lee Photography

A multidisciplinary team of researchers across Columbia University have been busy addressing the complex challenges in basic and translational cancer research. Faculty and investigators are bridging their expertise in fields ranging from mathematics, biology, and engineering to physics, genomics, and chemistry to develop innovative approaches to better understand, for instance, cancer disease progression, drug resistance, and the systems-wide network of tumor evolution.

New NIH Grant to Accelerate Commercialization of Single-Cell Analysis Platform

fluorescently-labeled live cells
Microwell array flow cell device loaded with fluorescently-labeled live cells. (Image provided by the Sims Lab.)

The field of single-cell RNA sequencing is moving at a fast clip. Adding to its rapid advance is a novel platform for linking optical imaging with high-throughput single-cell sequencing devised by researchers in the Sims Lab at Columbia’s Department of Systems Biology.

Courtesy of The Olive Lab

Shown here, a human pancreatic tumor stained with Masson's trichrome; Image credit: Dr. Kenneth Olive

The Lustgarten Foundation has awarded Columbia University’s Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) a three-year grant, as part of its Translational Clinical Program, to test a new precision medicine approach to the treatment of metastatic pancreatic cancer.

“The prevailing model in personalized cancer treatment is to attack the DNA mutations that are believed to be driving an individual patient’s tumor,” says principal investigator Kenneth P. Olive, PhD , assistant professor of medicine and pathology & cell biology at HICCC. “While this approach has been astonishingly effective for a handful of rare cancers, we expect it will only work for a very small fraction of patients with the most common types of cancer.”

Nicholas P. Tatonetti, PhD, has recently been named director of clinical informatics at the Institute for Genomic Medicine (IGM) at Columbia University Medical Center. In this new role, he is charged with planning, organizing, directing and evaluating all clinical informatics efforts across the Institute. In particular, he will focus on the integration of electronic health record data for use in genetics and genomics studies.

Dr. Tatonetti, who is Herbert Irving Assistant Professor of Biomedical informatics with an interdisciplinary appointment in the Department of Systems Biology, specializes in advancing the application of data science in biology and health science. Researchers in his lab integrate their medical observations with systems and chemical biology models to not only explain drug effects, but also further understanding of basic biology and human disease. They focus also on integration of high throughput data capture technologies, such as next-generation genome and transcriptome sequencing, metabolomics, and proteomics, with the electronic medical record to study the complex interplay between genetics, environment, and disease.