2019 News

Wang Lab
Ravi Sheth (left) and Harris Wang, PhD

Dr. Harris Wang , PhD, and systems biology graduate student, Ravi Sheth , have been awarded a new grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help advance a global health project aimed at reducing childhood mortality in sub-Saharan Africa. The project incorporates Dr. Wang’s innovative microbiome research techniques and applies them to study the antibiotic, Azithromycin, towards understanding its role as an intervention for improving childhood survival rates in rural low-income, low-resource settings.

The study supported by the Gates grant expands on breakthrough research conducted in the MORDOR study , a cluster-randomized trial in which communities in Malawi, Niger and Tanzania were assigned to four twice-yearly mass distributions of either oral Azithromycin or placebo. Children, as young as 12 months of age, participated, and results indicated that the all-cause mortality rate was significantly lower for communities receiving the antibiotic versus placebo. 

“This is an extremely exciting and, in many ways, very surprising result for such an underserved population,” says Sheth, who is a fourth-year PhD student in the systems biology track at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) . “Now it is crucial to understand how Azithromycin is acting to increase survival in such a profound way – to aid scale-up of the intervention and to help optimize the treatment regime and minimize any unintended consequences.” 

The researchers will focus on developing a mechanistic understanding of how Azithromycin reshapes the gut microbiome, and how this altered microbiome state affects the host. The effect of the antibiotic will be studied over space and time to understand the perturbation to the gut ecosystem and resulting community re-configuration and re-assembly, and this information will be utilized to predict and test optimal dosing strategies. 

Peter Sims, PhD
Peter Sims, PhD

The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research has awarded Peter Sims , PhD, an Emerging Leader Award and will support his work to advance a novel use of single-cell RNA sequencing to develop brain cancer treatments. Dr. Sims, assistant professor of systems biology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, is one of just eight recipients of the inaugural grant, given to promising early career scientists for projects aimed at substantially unmet needs in cancer risk prediction, prevention, detection and treatment. 

Dr. Sims is an early contributor to the emerging field of large-scale single-cell RNA sequencing, which has made it possible to analyze tens of thousands of cells while simultaneously obtaining imaging and genomic data from each individual cell. He will be using this approach to improve patient-derived models of glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), an aggressive form of cancer that invades the brain, making complete resection difficult. In other words, making it extremely difficult in surgery to remove all cancerous cells from the brain. To date, drug therapies for this type of aggressive brain cancer have had limited success, partly because of the heterogeneity of these tumors. Furthermore,  current patient-derived models for researching glioblastoma do not fully recapitulate the cellular diversity of tumor cells that are present in the tumor, so it is extremely challenging to classify those cells in order to match them with the drug therapies that work. 

Indeed, there is a critical need to better characterize and understand GBM. Dr. Sims has collaborated with several brain tumor experts in the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center , including Drs. Peter Canoll, Jeffrey Bruce, Antonio Iavarone and Anna Lasorella to advance single-cell genomic approaches to characterizing this disease. Approaching this problem at the single cell level could result in development of novel treatments that  prioritize and identify the specific drug therapies that may actually work on diminishing these tumor cells. The ultimate goal is to attain better predictions of therapeutic efficacy.