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Suying Bao, PhD
Suying Bao, PhD

Suying Bao, a postdoctoral research scientist in the Chaolin Zhang lab , has been named an inaugural Precision Medicine Research fellow by Columbia’s Irving Institute of Clinical and Translational Research . The two-year fellowship aims to train postdocs to use genomics and complex clinical data to improve personalized and tailored clinical care and clinical outcomes. 

This fellowship “will provide me with more opportunities to translate my findings from basic science research into clinical application,” says Bao, “and pave my way towards an independent researcher in this field.” 

Bao’s expertise lies in RNA regulation at the interface of systems biology, ranging from the specificity of protein-RNA interaction to function of specific splice variants. RNA regulation is critical in proper cellular function; gaining deeper insights into this complex molecular mechanism will promote the development of precision medicine therapies. 

In this project, Bao is aiming to develop new approaches to identify causal noncoding regulatory variants (RVs) modulating post-transcriptional gene expression regulation, such as RNA splicing and stability.  “A majority of genetic variants associated with human diseases reside in noncoding genomic regions with regulatory roles,” notes Bao. “Thus, elucidating how these noncoding regulatory variants contribute to gene expression variation is a crucial step towards unraveling genotype-phenotype relationships and advancing precision medicine for common and complex diseases.”

To identify these RVs, she will leverage massive datasets of high-throughput profiles of gene expression and protein-RNA interactions generated from large cohorts of normal and disease human tissues and cell lines by multiple consortia, such as ENCODE, GTEx and CommonMind, and develop innovative computational methods of data mining. 

Hyundai $2.5M Grant to Columbia
Julia Glade Bender, MD, (center) at the Hyundai Hope on Wheels announcement Mar. 29 during the New York International Auto Show at the Jacob Javitz Center. (Photo courtesy of HHOW)

A team of researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) has recently been awarded a five-year $2.5 million grant from Hyundai Hope on Wheels (HHOW) to fund innovative pediatric cancer research. 

The team at Columbia is being led by principal investigator (PI), Julia Glade Bender , MD, associate professor of pediatrics at CUIMC, with co-PIs Andrea Califano , Dr, chair of Columbia’s Department of Systems Biology and Darrell Yamashiro , MD, PhD, director of pediatric hematology, oncology and stem cell transplantation, along with researchers from Memorial Sloan Kettering, University of San Francisco Children’s and Dana-Farber Cancer Center. 

The Quantum Collaboration award from HHOW is aimed at funding research focused on childhood cancers with poor prognosis. At Columbia, the team will target osteosarcoma, the most commonly diagnosed bone tumor in children and adolescents. No new treatment approaches have successfully been introduced for osteosarcoma in nearly 40 years, and patients with the disease have not benefited from recent breakthroughs like immunotherapy or DNA sequencing and require a shift in the understanding and approach to therapy. 

Michael Shen, PhD
Michael Shen, PhD (Image Courtesy of the Shen Lab)

The Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network (BCAN) has awarded Professor Michael Shen, PhD, the 2018 Bladder Cancer Research Innovation Award. The honor is given to scientists whose novel, creative research has great potential to produce breakthroughs in the management of bladder cancer.  

Dr. Shen, who is professor of medicine, genetics & development, urology and systems biology at Columbia University, has used new techniques of 3D cell culture to establish “organoids” from primary bladder tumors obtained from patients. These personalized laboratory models, which the Shen lab can create in a matter of weeks, provide a new, innovative way to study the molecular mechanisms associated with drug response and drug resistance in bladder cancer patients. 

The BCAN award supports the Shen lab’s efforts in furthering their work in patient-derived bladder tumor organoids

“We will employ these organoid lines to examine how specific oncogenic drivers may regulate the invasiveness and metastatic ability of muscle-invasive bladder cancer (MIBC), both in cell culture and in mouse models,” says Dr. Shen. “Our goal is to use these new experimental approaches to provide molecular insights into the lethal properties of human MIBC, which will hopefully lead to improved therapeutic approaches.”

Bladder cancer is the fifth most common cancer in the United States, and the primary treatment of the disease is surgery. Overall, this new project will examine central questions of bladder cancer biology using Dr. Shen’s innovative approach involving patient-derived tumor organoids, and may provide the basis for future therapies for metastatic bladder cancer.

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.”

According to one undergraduate referred to in the award citation, Dr. Przeworski “is definitely one of the best teachers I have ever been taught by.” The student also described her lectures as “well-designed” to build a keen understanding of and active engagement with the material. Columbia also lauded her for helping to launch the first annual New York area meeting in population genetics, successfully connecting researchers of varying career stages.

Dr. Przeworski's work aims to understand how natural selection has shaped patterns of genetic variation, and to identify the causes and consequences of variation in recombination and mutation rates, in humans and other organisms. She is the recipient of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientist award, the Rosalind Franklin Young Investigator award, the Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research award and an Alfred P. Sloan fellowship. 

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. 

A critical advantage offered by the approaches that the Califano Lab brings to the CZI community is that of addressing one of the most critical issues in single cell biology characterization. Specifically, since the depth of transcriptional sequencing of single cells is generally a very small fraction of what can be achieved from bulk tissue, most of the genes are actually lost and only the 20% to 30% of the genes that are most highly expressed can be detected. This has been dubbed the gene dropout problem. By using the recently published metaVIPER algorithm, this problem is eliminated as regulatory networks are used to accurately infer the activity of 6,000 proteins that include all the critical players in cell state implementation and modulation, even if their RNA cannot be detected, thus fully addressing gene dropout and allowing much deeper investigation of single cell biology. 

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. 

As reported by Columbia Precision Medicine, the investigators’ research objectives include: to dissect the molecular mechanisms underlying tissue-specificity of genetic regulatory variants and to map network-level regulatory variants that cause protein-level transcription factor (TF) activity to vary between individuals. The investigators will infer TF activity based on DNA binding specificity models of human TFs, and use it as a tissue-specific parameter of the cellular environment. They will also map trans-acting genetic variants that affect TF activity (coined ‘aQTLs’ by one of the investigators) in each tissue. The investigators hope to elucidate which transcription factors are driving the functional impact and tissue specificity of any particular eQTL, genomic loci that contribute to variation in gene expression levels. 

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.”

Pancreatic ductal carcinoma (PDA)—the most common form of pancreatic cancer—is a case in point. Researchers have identified few genetic drivers in pancreatic tumors, and the most common driver ( KRAS ) is not easily targeted. Conservatively, only about 15 percent of PDA patients are likely to benefit from conventional DNA mutation-based precision medicine therapies and most of these will either not respond or will relapse with a drug-resistant form of the disease.

“Our study takes an entirely new approach,” says Dr. Olive. “Instead of looking at the mutations encoded in a tumor’s DNA, we analyze the tumor’s RNA. Since RNA is the tissue-specific ‘working copy’ of a cancer cell’s DNA, it’s a more accurate reflection of the genetic programs that are active in a tumor and critical for its survival. We can then match the patient to approved and investigational drugs that inhibit those programs.”

Broad, Columbia collaborators
Three of the investigators in new Columbia, Broad Institute research collaboration aimed at gastric and esophageal cancer; L to R: Dr. Andrea Califano, Dr. Cory Johannessen, and Dr. Adam Bass (Johannessen image: Martin Adolfsson; Bass image: Sam Ogden/Dana-Farber Cancer Institute)

A research collaboration underway between Columbia’s Department of Systems Biology, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) is working to accelerate the discovery of new cancer drug combinations targeted at gastric and esophageal cancer. These tumors have not yet attracted prominent research focus and attention, and yet the general outcome for patients with these diseases is poor. According to the American Cancer Society, survival rates are only 20% at five years after diagnosis.

The newly formed research alliance between research teams at Columbia and at the Broad Institute came about thanks to a four-year gift by the Price Family Foundation, known for its philanthropic support of education, health, and biomedical research.

The Columbia-Broad team includes Dr. Andrea Califano , cofounder and chair of the Department of Systems Biology; Dr. Adam Bass , associate member of the Broad Institute; Dr. Cory Johannessen, senior research scientist at the Broad Institute; Dr. Josh Sonnett , the director of The Price Family Center for Comprehensive Chest Care, Lung and Esophageal Center at Columbia; and Dr. Naiyer A. Rizvi , the Price Chair in Clinical Translational Research at Columbia.

In 2016, the Price Family Foundation suggested that a team of scientists at the Broad Institute meet with researchers from CUMC. At the time, the Foundation was eager to leverage the project at the Broad—where researchers had uncovered an interesting finding for gastric and esophageal cancer—with innovative cancer systems biology work it was supporting at CUMC, focusing on the same diseases.

Erin Bush Receives Award

Erin Bush with Department of Systems Biology Assistant Professor Peter Sims and College of Physicians & Sciences Dean Lee Goldman. (Photo: Amelia Panico)

The Department of Systems Biology is proud to congratulate Erin Bush on being selected for the Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons 2016 Officer of Research Award. The award is one of six given annually to recognize select staff members for their outstanding contributions in the workplace. Recipients of the 2016 were recognized in a ceremony that took place at Columbia University Medical Center on January 12, 2017.

Erin is a staff associate in the JP Sulzberger Columbia Genome Center and a sequencing specialist working in the laboratories of Peter Sims and Andrea Califano. She has been helping to develop new next-generation sequencing techniques, focusing on low input and single cell DNA and RNA library preparation and testing. As the CUMC Newsroom reports:

Noted for her technical skill and professionalism, Ms. Bush was honored for her work in the Department of Systems Biology, where her time and expertise are split among three laboratories. At the Sulzberger Columbia Genome Center, her efforts boosted efficiency at the sequencing core facility and enabled the core’s expansion. More recently, she helped develop an RNA-sequencing technology with the Califano and Sims labs that allows researchers to screen drugs for genetic effects at low cost and high throughput. The new technology is a promising tool for disease research and precision medicine and has led to multimillion-dollar federal grants within the department.

The P&S Annual Awards recognize one employee each in the categories of Management, Administration, Research, Clerical & Technical, Diversity, and Community Service.

Congratulations, Erin!

Harris WangHarris Wang

Harris Wang has been named a recipient of the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). Dr. Wang is among 102 researchers recognized today by President Barack Obama as the newest recipients of this honor.

The PECASE is considered the United States’ highest award for young scientists and engineers, conferred annually at the White House at the recommendation of participating federal agencies. The award celebrates young researchers at the beginning of their independent research careers who show exceptional promise to lead at the frontiers of twenty-first century science and technology.

Integrating data sources

Clinical and molecular data are currently stored in many different databases using different semantics and different formats. A new project called DeepLink aims to develop a framework that would make it possible to compare and analyze data across platforms not originally intended to intersect. (Image courtesy of Nicholas Tatonetti.)

Medical doctors and basic biological scientists tend to speak about human health in different languages. Whereas doctors in the clinic focus on phenomena such as symptoms, drug effects, and treatment outcomes, basic scientists often concentrate on activity at the molecular and cellular levels such as genetic alterations, gene expression changes, or protein profiles. Although these various layers are all related physiologically, there is no standard terminology or framework for storing and organizing the different kinds of data that describe them, making it difficult for scientists to systematically integrate and analyze data across different biological scales. Being able to do so, many investigators now believe, could provide a more efficient and comprehensive way to understand and fight disease.

A new project recently launched by Nicholas Tatonetti (Assistant Professor in the Columbia University Departments of Systems Biology and Biomedical Informatics) along with co-principal investigators Chunhua Weng (Department of Biomedical Informatics) and Michel Dumontier (Stanford University), aims to bridge this divide. With the support of a $1.1 million grant from the National Center for Advancing Translational Science (NCATS) the scientists have begun to develop a tool they call DeepLink, a data translator that will integrate health-related findings at multiple scales.

As Dr. Tatonetti explains, “We want to close what we call the interoperability gap, a fundamental difference in the language and semantics used to describe the models and knowledge between the clinical and molecular domains. Our goal is to develop a scalable electronic architecture for integrating the enormous multiscale knowledge that is now available.”

Master regulators of tumor homeostasis

In this rendering, master regulators of tumor homeostasis (white) integrate upstream genetic and epigenetic events (yellow) and regulate downstream genes (purple) responsible for implementing cancer programs such as proliferation and migration. CaST aims to develop systematic methods for identifying drugs capable of disrupting master regulator activity.

The Columbia University Department of Systems Biology has been named one of four inaugural centers in the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) new Cancer Systems Biology Consortium. This five-year grant will support the creation of the Center for Cancer Systems Therapeutics (CaST), a collaborative research center that will investigate the general principles and functional mechanisms that enable malignant tumors to grow, evade treatment, induce disease progression, and develop drug resistance. Using this knowledge, the Center aims to identify new cancer treatments that target master regulators of tumor homeostasis.

CaST will build on previous accomplishments in the Department of Systems Biology and its Center for Multiscale Analysis of Genomic and Cellular Networks (MAGNet), which developed several key systems biology methods for characterizing the complex molecular machinery underlying cancer. At the same time, however, the new center constitutes a step forward, as it aims to move beyond a static understanding of cancer biology toward a time-dependent framework that can account for the dynamic, ever-changing nature of the disease. This more nuanced understanding could eventually enable scientists to better predict how individual tumors will change over time and in response to treatment.

Papers

Each year, participants in the ISCB/RECOMB Conference on Regulatory and Systems Genomics select publications over the past year that they consider to have made the most significant contributions to the field. During the most recent conference, held in Philadelphia on November 15-18, 2015, the top 10 papers were announced. Among those selected were four involving Columbia University Department of Systems Biology investigators. 

February 24, 2016

Barry Honig Named ISCB Fellow

Barry Honig The International Society for Computational Biology has elected Professor Barry Honig to its 2016 ISCB Class of Fellows. The award recognizes distinguished ISCB members who shown excellence in research and/or service to the computational biology community. Dr. Honig’s award acknowledges his “seminal contributions to protein structure prediction and molecular electrostatics, and his more recent work on protein function prediction, protein-DNA recognition, and cell-cell adhesion.”

The International Society for Computational Biology is the largest professional society for scientists working in the fields of computational biology and bioinformatics. The 2016 Class of Fellows will be presented at its annual Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology (ISMB) conference, to be held July 8-12, 2016 in Orlando, Florida.

Andrea CalifanoAndrea Califano, the Clyde and Helen Wu Professor of Chemical Systems Biology and Chair of the Columbia University Department of Systems Biology, has been named a recipient of a National Cancer Institute Outstanding Investigator Award. The seven-year grant will support the development of systematic approaches for identifying the molecular factors that lead to cancer progression and to the emergence of drug resistance at the single-cell level. 

Saeed TavazoieSaeed Tavazoie, a professor in the Columbia University Department of Systems Biology, has been named a recipient of a 2015 National Institutes of Health Transformative Research Award. The grant will support research to develop state-of-the-art experimental and computational methods for comprehensively mapping and modeling all pairwise molecular interactions inside cells. 

The Transformative Research Award is a part of the NIH Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, which provides critical funding to scientists it recognizes as being exceptionally creative and who propose particularly innovative approaches to solving key problems in biomedical research. The Transformative Research Award is designed to support projects that use methods and perspectives that are unconventional and untested, but show great potential to create or overturn fundamental paradigms.

Oliver Hobert
Oliver Hobert

Oliver Hobert, an interdisciplinary faculty member of the Department of Systems Biology, has received a Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). This prestigious grant provides long-term support for investigators who have demonstrated exceptional achievement throughout their careers. The award will enable the Hobert Lab to pursue a new project investigating sex-based differences in the regulation of neuronal identity.

Also a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics and an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Dr. Hobert is known for his research using C. elegans to understand the molecular programs that control cell-type differentiation within the nervous system. C. elegans has become an invaluable model organism for studying the nervous system because it contains just over 300 neurons whose development has been studied in great detail.

Recently, electron microscopy was used to compare nervous systems in male and hermaphrodite worms, and showed that some of these neurons are present in both sexes. Interestingly, the researchers discovered that even when these neurons had the same lineage history, position, morphology, and molecular features, there was a striking divergence in the patterns of synapse formation between the sexes. Under the new grant, the Hobert Lab will attempt to identify the mechanisms that control this divergence. The project should produce not only a much deeper understanding of sex-based differences in neuronal identity, but also new resources that will support future investigation of this phenomenon.

Winners of the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Awards are nominated by NINDS staff members and members of the National Advisory Neurological Disorders and Stoke Council (NANDS). The grant acknowledges grant recipients as being leaders in neuroscience who have been highly productive or have contributed paradigm-shifting ideas. By supporting investigators for 4-7 years, the grant also anticipates high productivity in the years to come. 

Topology of cancer

The Columbia University Center for Topology of Cancer Evolution and Heterogeneity will combine mathematical approaches from topological data analysis with new single-cell experimental technologies to study cellular diversity in solid tumors. Image courtesy of Raul Rabadan.

The National Cancer Institute’s Physical Sciences in Oncology program has announced the creation of a new center for research and education based at Columbia University. The Center for Topology of Cancer Evolution and Heterogeneity will develop and utilize innovative mathematical and experimental techniques to explore how genetic diversity emerges in the cells that make up solid tumors. In this way it will address a key challenge facing cancer research in the age of precision medicine — how to identify the clonal variants within a tumor that are responsible for its growth, spread, and resistance to therapy. Ultimately, the strategies the Center develops could be used to identify more effective biomarkers of disease and new therapeutic strategies.

Gut-Brain Microbiota
A grant from the Office of Naval Research will support the development of three foundational synthetic biology technologies for engineering the human gut microbiota.

Harris Wang, an assistant professor in the Columbia University Department of Systems Biology, has been selected for the Office of Naval Research 2015 Young Investigators Program. This highly selective program promotes the development of early-career academic scientists whose research shows exceptional promise and creativity. With the support of this award, Dr. Wang will extend his research in the field of synthetic biology to develop new technologies for engineering the gut microbiome, the ecosystem of bacteria that inhabit the human digestive system. These new methods, Wang anticipates, could provide new ways of designing communities of different microbial species and ultimately modulating interactions between the gut, the immune system, and the brain.

Rodney Rothstein
Rodney Rothstein

The Columbia University Department of Systems Biology congratulates Rodney Rothstein on his election to the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS is a private, non-profit society of distinguished scholars that provides independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology. Scientists elected to the NAS are chosen by their peers in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.

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