News

Brian Ji Vitkup Lab
Brian Ji won Best Oral Presentation at Biennial Integrated Program Retreat; Visit the gallery for photos from the event.

Brian Ji , a combined MD/PhD student in Columbia’s Department of Systems Biology, delivered the winning oral presentation at the recent Biennial Integrated Program Retreat. Ji, who is a member of the Vitkup Lab, presented “Quantification of Human Gut Microbiota Variability Using Replicate Sampling,” and was one of six systems biology graduate students who delivered research presentations at the conference. 

Ji discussed a novel experimental and computational method he has developed to understand spatiotemporal dynamics of the human gut microbiome, as well as the technical noise tied to current human microbiome sequencing techniques. In addition to the human gut, the method, he says, is broadly applicable to other bacterial ecosystems and other sequencing-based studies. In the Vitkup Lab , Ji works on developing and utilizing quantitative approaches to reveal novel biological insights into bacterial ecology as well as cell physiology. His research interests also include exploring computational models and tools to study cancer metabolism at a global scale. In 2011, Ji received a prestigious Barry Goldwater Scholarship for his work on mathematical modeling to study impaired brain connectivity in epilepsy.  

composite image of the scientists and research figure
Tuuli Lappalainen (top photo) and Stephane Castel co-led the new study. The hypothesis of the study is illustrated here with an example in which an individual is heterozygous for both a regulatory variant and a pathogenic coding variant. The two possible haplotype configurations would result in either decreased penetrance of the coding variant, if it was on the lower-expressed haplotype, or increased penetrance of the coding variant, if it was on the higher-expressed haplotype. (Composite image courtesy of NYGC)

Researchers at the New York Genome Center (NYGC) and Columbia University's Department of Systems Biology have uncovered a molecular mechanism behind one of biology’s long-standing mysteries: why individuals carrying identical gene mutations for a disease end up having varying severity or symptoms of the disease. In this widely acknowledged but not well understood phenomenon, called variable penetrance, the severity of the effect of disease-causing variants differs among individuals who carry them. 

Reporting in the Aug. 20 issue of Nature Genetics, the researchers provide evidence for modified penetrance, in which genetic variants that regulate gene activity modify the disease risk caused by protein-coding gene variants. The study links modified penetrance to specific diseases at the genome-wide level, which has exciting implications for future prediction of the severity of serious diseases such as cancer and autism spectrum disorder.

NYGC Core Faculty Member and Systems Biology Assistant Professor Dr. Tuuli Lappalainen, PhD, led the study alongside post-doctoral research fellow Dr. Stephane Castel.

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.