2019 News

Dr. Harris Wang of Systems Biology
Dr. Harris Wang is lead PI on a new DARPA-funded project developing novel therapies to counter effects of high-dose ionizing radiation.

Harris Wang, PhD, assistant professor of systems biology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center , is leading a team of experts in radiation research, CRISPR-Cas technologies, and drug delivery on an innovative new project announced June 27 funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) . The up to $9.5M project focuses on pursuing a therapy to protect the body from the effects of high-dose ionizing radiation, and is part of DARPA's initiative to fund research into new strategies to combat public health and national security threats.

In humans, acute radiation syndrome primarily affects stem cells in the blood and gut, yet existing treatments only help to regenerate blood cells, and only with limited effect. There is no possibility for prophylactic administration of these drugs, and most must be delivered immediately following radiation exposure to provide any benefit. There are no existing medical countermeasures for radiation damage to the gut.

The Columbia team aims to develop an orally delivered programmable gene modulator therapeutic. The multimodal treatment the team envisions would take hold in both the gut and liver, triggering protection and regeneration of intestinal cells, while also inducing liver cells to produce protective cues that trigger the regeneration of blood cells in bone marrow.

Columbia investigators win Chan Zuckerberg Initiative grants to accelerate development of cellular roadmap of the human body.

In two groundbreaking research projects contributing to the Human Cell Atlas, Columbia University scientists are tasked with mapping complete cells in the immune system and the human spine. The global effort is aiming to identify and define every cell type of the human body and create a collection of maps for navigating the cellular basis of human health and disease.

Peter Sims, PhD
Peter Sims, PhD, assistant professor of systems biology

The Columbia teams, which include co-principal investigators from the Department of Systems Biology Drs. Peter Sims and Raul Rabadan , are among the 38 collaborative science teams launching the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s (CZI) Seed Networks for the Human Cell Atlas project announced today. The three-year projects, receiving a total of $68 million in award funding by Seed Networks, are collaborative groups that are bringing together expertise in science, computational biology, software engineering, and medicine to support the ongoing progress of the Human Cell Atlas .

Investigating the Immune System + Aging

Dr. Sims, part of an international team including close collaborator Dr. Donna Farber of the Department of Surgery , is combining single-cell sequencing technologies, data analysis, and immunology expertise to better understand how the immune system ages and gain new insights into how human diseases occur. 

Chaolin Zhang
Chaolin Zhang, PhD, associate professor of systems biology

A new study by researchers in Dr. Chaolin Zhang’s lab at Columbia’s Department of Systems Biology details a novel computational method that models how RNA-binding proteins (RBPs) recognize specific sites in the target RNA transcripts, precisely and accurately. The researchers’ findings include identification of entirely new motifs (RNA sequence patterns), and their research in complex RNA regulation contributes to our understanding of the molecular basis of disease and conditions, and down the road, could aid in the development of targeted therapies. 

The study, led by Dr. Zhang, associate professor of systems biology, with senior co-authors Suying Bao, PhD, and Huijuan Feng, PhD, appears today in Molecular Cell

RNA has traditionally been considered mere “messengers” that transfer genetic information from DNA to proteins that ultimately carry out cellular functions. However, it is now increasingly appreciated that RNA can be tightly regulated to control gene expression and diversity protein products. RNA-binding proteins (RBPs) are at the center of such regulation, with important roles in many cellular processes, including cell function, transport, and location. Gaining mechanistic insights of the binding specificity of RBPs in a genome-wide scale helps advance our knowledge of gene regulation.

“RNA-binding proteins are crucial for gene expression,” says Dr. Feng, coauthor of the study and post-doctoral research scientist in the Zhang lab. “RNA is heavily regulated, and when this regulation goes wrong, instabilities or disease could occur.”  

Dr. Andrea Califano sits down with BioTechniques at AACR. Video: Courtesy of BioTechniques.

At the 2019 annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), Dr. Andrea Califano sat down with BioTechniques News for an overview on the field of systems biology and its impact in cancer research and in precision medicine. Dr. Califano is a pioneering researcher in the fast-growing field of systems biology whose expertise is in developing innovative, systematic approaches to identify the molecular factors that lead to cancer progression and to the emergence of drug resistance at the single-cell level. A physicist by training, Dr. Califano is the Clyde and Helen Wu Professor of Chemical and Systems Biology, founding chair of the Department of Systems Biology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, director of the Columbia Genome Center and a program leader at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The video interview is part of the series, Behind the Technqiue by BioTechniques News. 

Oxytricha

New research by Laura Landweber, PhD, who has joint appointments in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, the Department of Systems Biology and the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, is being featured by Columbia Univeristy Iriving Medical Center Newsroom.

As reported, a new study of a single-celled eukaryote with 16,000 tiny chromosomes may shed light on a recently discovered feature of the human genome.

Methyladenine, or 6mA—a modification of DNA common in Oxytricha trifallax—has only recently been found in multicellular organisms, with some studies suggesting a role in human disease and development.

Finding the enzymes that lay down the methyl marks will be critical to understanding what 6mA is doing in Oxytricha and other organisms, but the enzymes have been difficult to identify.

The new research—to be published in the June 13 issue of Cell—reveals how 6mA marks are made to the Oxytricha genome and suggests why the enzymes have been hard to find.

Read more about the Oxytricha genome and the Landweber lab’s new insights into 6mA and its potential role in human diseases.

Dr. Landweber has been studying Oxytricha for two decades and previously uncovered its 16,000 chromosomes. (See related Faculty Q+A and video.)

 

 

Tuuli Lamport Research Award

Tuuli Lappalainen, PhD, was honored with the Lamport Research faculty award at the 2019 Commencement ceremony. Dr. Lappalainen is pictured here with Columbia University Trustee Andrew Barth (left) and Dean Lee Goldman of Columbia University Irving Medical Center. (Courtesy of CUIMC Communications)

Tuuli Lappalainen , PhD, assistant professor of systems biology at Columbia University and core faculty member at the New York Genome Center (NYGC) , has received the Harold and Golden Lamport Research award, presented on May 22 at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons Commencement Ceremony. 

The Lamport Research award is an annual prize given to junior faculty members that show promise in basic science or clinical science research. This year it recognizes Dr. Lappalainen’s ongoing research in functional genetic variation in human populations, and her work in elucidating the cellular mechanisms linked to genetic risk for various diseases and traits. Dr. Lappalainen and her lab combine computational analysis of high-throughput sequencing data, human population genetics approaches and experimental work. 

Her group at NYGC and Columbia is highly collaborative and has made important contributions to several international research consortia in human genomics, including the Genotype Tissue Expression (GTEx) Project and the TOPMed Consortium. 

Dr. Lappalainen joined the faculty at Columbia University in 2014 as part of the Department of Systems Biology and NYGC. In 2018, she received the annual Leena Peltonen Prize for Excellence in Human Genetics, which was presented to her in Milan, Italy, at the 52nd European Society of Human Genetics meeting. 

Brian Ji_2
Systems Biology Graduate Brian Ji, PhD

For Brian Ji, the big draw to systems biology stemmed from his passion for applying quantitative approaches to understanding biology. While an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Ji studied nuclear engineering and credits that training for the way in which he tackles scientific questions: creatively, and as a problem solver. 

“There is no one right approach to asking a question and setting out to answer it, and that freedom is what makes science fun for me,” he says. 

Ji studied under Dr. Dennis Vitkup in the Vitkup lab and completed his thesis defense for systems biology in the fall of 2018.  Also an MD student in Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons , Ji was attracted to Columbia because of the close interplay between the Systems Biology Department and the Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “Ultimately,” he says, “the opportunity to sit at the intersection between math, biology and medicine was too good to pass up.”

Ji’s PhD work focused on understanding spatiotemporal dynamics of human gut microbiota. He developed several frameworks that leveraged the increasing availability of high-throughput sequencing data to better understand and precisely quantify patterns of human gut microbiota variability across time and space. His work showed that characterizing dynamics—changes in bacterial abundances in our gut—are critical to understanding how these ecosystems function and is highly connected to multiple factors such as host diet, travel and diet. 

Ji also spent part of his PhD studying limitations of cancer cell growth in different environmental conditions. He credits Columbia for exposing him to a variety of research topics. 

Phyllis Thangaraj
Phyllis Thangaraj, MD/PhD student (Tatonetti lab)

Aspiring physician-scientists from Columbia's Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons presented their research posters at the 14th annual MD-PhD Student Research Symposium on April 25. Their research delved into a range of topics, including Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and stem cells. The event included a guest lecture by an alumna about her own career path as a physician-scientist, and culminated in the poster session judged by MD-PhD alumni who currently work at the University. Department of Systems Biology’s Phyllis Thangaraj, an MD/PhD student in the Nicholas Tatonetti lab , was named one of five poster winners at the event. 

She presented work on applying machine learning methods to phenotype acute ischemic stroke patients in the electronic health records. In cohort research studies, it is essential to identify a large number of subjects in an accurate and efficient manner, but often this requires time-consuming manual review of patient charts. 

“We applied machine learning methods to data within a patient’s electronic health records to develop a high-throughput way to define research cohorts,” explains Thangaraj. “Our test case is in acute ischemic stroke. We extracted clues within a person’s medical record that required minimal data processing to classify those who have had a stroke. In a separate cohort, the UK Biobank, we were able to use our model to identify patients with self-reported stroke but no mention in their medical data with 65-fold better precision than random selection of patients.” Although stroke was the test case in this particular work, she explained that their workflow could be applied to identify patients for cohorts of other diseases, particularly when the dataset has missing data. 

 

Andrea Califano
Andrea Califano, Dr

The migration away from “one-size-fits-all” medicine, particularly in the areas of cancer detection and treatment, holds great promise for patients and the field of precision medicine. Demand and jobs are increasing for researchers, clinicians and professionals who are at home collecting, analyzing and using more and newer forms of data, according to a recent feature reported in Science magazine which spotlights Dr. Andrea Califano , founding chair of the Department of Systems Biology

In the field of oncology, innovations continue to grow rapidly in precision, or targeted medicine, as clinicians seek to find better treatments for specific kinds of cancer, rather than take a blanket approach via the traditional trifecta of radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery. To do so, they must test patients, note mutations, and identify biomarkers to determine what treatments could work best with the fewest side effects.

Scientific breakthroughs, in these areas and more, have led to greater understanding of genes and their functions and have created new opportunities for precision medicine—and for those with technical, research, and clinical skills eager to work in this ever-expanding field. Special consideration will be given to those job applicants who can perform big data analysis and multidisciplinary research. However, new jobs will also emerge in previously unseen areas, such as business, translational medicine, and genetic counseling.

New and powerful tools have aided the precision medicine movement. The Human Genome Project, the first complete mapping of human genes, published its preliminary results in 2001. The project’s numerous benefits include knowing the location of the approximately 20,500 genes identified in the body and gaining a clearer understanding of how genes areorganized and operate.

The Korem Lab

One of the structural variations detected in Anaerostipes hadrus, which is deleted in ~40% of the population (top), and associated with higher disease risk. Genes in this region (bottom) code a composite inositol catabolism - butyrate production pathway, potentially supplying the microbe with additional energy while supplying the host with butyrate, previously shown to have positive metabolic and anti-inflammatory effects. (Credit: Korem lab)

Our gut microbiome has been linked to everything from obesity and diabetes to heart disease and even neurological disorders and cancer. In recent years, researchers have been sorting through the multiple bacterial species that populate the microbiome, asking which of them can be implicated in specific disorders. But a paper recently published in Nature addressed a new question: "What if the same microbe is different in different people?" The study was co-led by Dr. Tal Korem , assistant professor of systems biology and core faculty member in the Program for Mathematical Genomics at Columbia University Irving Medical Center

It has been long known that the genomes of microbes are not fixed from birth, as ours are. They are able to lose some of their genes, exchange genes with other microorganisms, or gain new ones from their environment. Thus, a detailed comparison of the genomes of seemingly identical bacteria will reveal sequences of DNA that occur in one genome and not others, or possibly sequences that appear just once in one and several times over in others. These differences are called structural variants. Structural variants - even tiny ones - can translate into huge differences in the ways that microbes interact with their human hosts. A variant might be the difference between a benign presence and a pathogenic one, or it could give bacteria resistance to antibiotics.

Dr. Raul Rabadan is leading a global research project as part of a new grant from the Pancreatic Cancer Collective to identify high-risk factors of pancreatic cancer. (Courtesy of Stand Up to Cancer)

A global team of researchers led by theoretical physicist Raul Rabadan, PhD, professor of systems biology at Columbia’s Vagelos School of Physicians and Surgeons, and Núria Malats, MD, PhD, head of the Genetic and Molecular Epidemiology Group of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO), are working to develop a comprehensive computational framework that will identify high-risk factors for pancreatic cancer.  

Armed with a new two-year, $1 million grant from the Pancreatic Cancer Collective, the team intends to attack pancreatic cancer research from multiple disciplines—genomics, mathematics and medicine—to provide an integrated, computational approach to studying genomic, environmental and immune factors that could identify populations at high risk of pancreatic cancer. The need for deeper understanding of the contributing factors to this lethal disease is pressing, as pancreatic cancer is projected to become the second leading cause of cancer-related mortality within the next decade. 

Rabadan-led Team for Pancreatic Cancer Collective
Drs. Raul Rabadan and Nuria Malats

Cory Abate-Shen, PhD, a distinguished scientist whose multidisciplinary research has advanced our understanding of the molecular basis of cancer initiation and progression, has been named chair of the Department of Pharmacology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Her appointment will be effective April 1, 2019.

Recruited to Columbia in 2007, Dr. Abate-Shen is currently the Michael and Stella Chernow Professor of Urologic Sciences and professor of pathology & cell biology, medicine, and systems biology. She has served as the leader of the prostate program, associate director, and twice as interim director of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and NewYork-Presbyterian.

An internationally recognized leader in genitourinary malignancies, Dr. Abate-Shen is particularly interested in advancing our understanding of the mechanisms and modeling of prostate and bladder tumors. An innovator in the generation of novel mouse models for these cancers, her work has led to the discovery of new biomarkers for early detection, as well as key advances in cancer prevention and treatment.

In the fall of 2018, Dr. Abate-Shen was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She is an American Cancer Society Professor, the first faculty member at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons to have received this honor. Previously, she served as a member of the National Cancer Institute’s Board of Scientific Counselors, and she currently is a member of the board of directors of the American Association of Cancer Research. 

Dr. Abate-Shen will succeed Robert S. Kass, PhD, the Hosack Professor of Pharmacology, Alumni Professor of Pharmacology, and chair of pharmacology since 1995.

Visit the CUIMC Newsroom for the full announcement

Columbia researchers have learned why some glioblastomas—the most common type of brain cancer—respond to immunotherapy. The findings, reported by the CUIMC Newsroom, could help identify patients who are most likely to benefit from treatment with immunotherapy drugs and lead to the development of more broadly effective treatments.

The study, led by Raul Rabadan, PhD, professor of systems biology and biomedical informatics at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center, was published online in the journal Nature Medicine

Fewer than 1 in 10 patients with glioblastoma­ respond to immunotherapy, which has shown remarkable success in the past few years in treating a variety of aggressive cancers. But there has been no way to know in advance which glioblastoma patients will respond. Like many other cancers, glioblastomas are able to prevent the immune system from attacking cancer cells. Cancers sometimes put the brakes on the immune system by acting on a protein called PD-1. Immunotherapy drugs called PD-1 inhibitors are designed to release those brakes, unleashing the immune system. Given the success of PD-1 inhibitors in other cancers, doctors were hopeful that the immunotherapy drugs would help patients with glioblastoma. 

To understand why only a few of these tumors respond to the immunotherapy drugs, Dr. Rabadan’s team took a comprehensive look at the tumor microenvironment—which includes the tumor itself and all of the cells that support it—in 66 glioblastoma patients before and after treatment with PD-1 inhibitors (nivolumab or pembrolizumab). Of these, 17 had a response to the drugs of six months or longer.

Nonresponsive tumors had more mutations in a gene called PTEN, which led to higher levels of macrophages, immune cells that usually help the body fight bacteria and other invaders. But in glioblastoma, the macrophages release a number of growth factors that promote the survival and spread of cancer cells.

 

PCF Challenge Award PIs
Principal investigators on the PCF Challenge Award grant, from left to right: Andrea Califano, Michael Shen and Charles Drake.

Columbia University Irving Medical Center experts in prostate cancer will lead a new team research project that tests a novel approach for personalized cancer treatment. 

The two-year project, funded by a $1 million Challenge Award from the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF) , combines cutting-edge techniques that include computational methods for targeted drug therapy, single-cell RNA sequencing and novel cancer immunotherapy. The combined approaches are behind a proof-of-concept clinical trial for patients with lethal metastatic prostate cancer.  

PCF Challenge Awards fund projects that bring together experts from a number of related fields to form a team focused on the creation of innovative, effective therapies for advanced prostate cancer. As part of Columbia’s grant, the new clinical trial will take place at the James J. Peters VA Medical Center (also known as the Bronx VA), a partner of Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) and New York-Presbyterian .

PCF is recognized as the leading philanthropic organization for prostate cancer research. For the team at Columbia’s Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC ), receiving a Challenge Award from the foundation was more than just an exciting achievement. It underscores CUIMC’s continued commitment to strengthen and expand its expertise in prostate cancer research and care through investments in faculty recruitment, enhanced emphases on bolstering basic science research and clinical trials centered on the disease and direct engagement with PCF. 

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.