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Yufeng Shen , PhD, found his passion for science in childhood, but he developed a fascination for both math and physics as his education progressed. In an earlier generation, he would have needed to choose between divergent paths. Instead, he chased his calling within an important emerging discipline. 

Yufeng Shen, PhD
Dr. Yufeng Shen

Dr. Shen was awarded tenure and promoted to the rank of associate professor in Columbia University's Departments of Systems Biology and Biomedical Informatics (DBMI) last summer. Utilizing new methods, he answers long-standing questions that impact health. Specifically, his research has focused on discovering novel genetic variants that cause human diseases.

His current work focuses on developing new computational methods to interpret genome data, identifying genetic causes of human diseases by integrating multiple types of genomic data, and modeling of immune cell populations. That research has led to important findings, including his work on the Deep Genetic Connection between Cancer and Developmental Disorders , published in Human Mutation.

Using innovative sequencing techniques from published studies of cancer and developmental disorders, Dr. Shen and his students identified a significant number of genes implicated in both diseases.

“This project allows us to use the larger cancer data to inform analysis in genetic variations of developmental disorders, and to find new risk genes and new risk variance,” he said. “It also provides a new perspective on how to optimize care for kids with developmental disorders. There is probably two to three times more risk of developing cancer for kids with developmental disorders than otherwise healthy kids.”

December 10, 2019

Highly Cited Researchers

Raul Rabadan Highly Cited
Raul Rabadan, PhD, (standing) with Francesco Brundu, postdoctoral research scientist in the Rabadan lab (Credit: Jeffrey Schifman)

Congratulations to Drs. Raul Rabadan and Xuebing Wu who were recently named a Highly Cited Researcher, according to the 2019 list from the Web of Science Group . Overall, Columbia University ranked 15th on the list of global institutions, with a total of 47 Highly Cited Researchers.

The Highly Cited Researchers list, which was released Nov. 19,  identifies scientists and social scientists who have produced multiple papers ranking in the top 1% by citations for their field and year of publication, demonstrating significant research influence among their peers.

Xuebing Wu, PhD
Xuebing Wu, PhD

Dr. Rabadan is professor of systems biology , with a joint appointment in biomedical informatics, at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons . At Columbia, the Rabadan lab consists of an interdisciplinary team developing mathematical and computational tools to extract useful biological information from large data sets. In 2017, Dr. Rabadan established the Program for Mathematical Genomics , a multidisciplinary research hub that brings together researchers from the fields of mathematics, physics, computer science, engineering, and medicine, with the common goal of solving pressing biomedical problems through quantitative methods and analyses. He also serves as program lead for the Cancer Genomics and Epigenomics Program at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center at NYP/Columbia. 

Videos of flies (5x speed) using FlyWalker, a program that enables scientists to label and track the position of each of the fly’s footfalls, thereby building a high-resolution picture of it’s walking gait. Top: normal fly walking at around 25 mm/s. Bottom: fly with its VNC serotonin neurons stimulated, which slows its speed to 15 mm/s (Credit: Clare Howard/Mann lab/Columbia's Zuckerman Institute)

A Columbia University study in fruit flies has identified serotonin as a chemical that triggers the body’s startle response, the automatic deer-in-the-headlights reflex that freezes the body momentarily in response to a potential threat. Today’s study reveals that when a fly experiences an unexpected change to its surroundings, such as a sudden vibration, release of serotonin helps to literally — and temporarily — stop the fly in its tracks.

These findings, recently published in Current Biology , offer broad insight into the biology of the startle response, a ubiquitous, yet mysterious, phenomenon that has been observed in virtually every animal studied to date, from flies to fish to people.

“Imagine sitting in your living room with your family and — all of a sudden — the lights go out, or the ground begins to shake,” said Richard Mann , PhD, a principal investigator at Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute and the paper’s senior author. “Your response, and that of your family, will be the same: You will stop, freeze and then move to safety. With this study, we show in flies that a rapid release of the chemical serotonin in their nervous system drives that initial freeze. And because serotonin also exists in people, these findings shed light on what may be going on when we get startled as well.”

In the brain, serotonin is most closely associated with regulating mood and emotion. But previous research on flies and vertebrates has shown it can also affect the speed of an animal’s movement. The Columbia researchers’ initial goal was to more fully understand how the chemical accomplished this.

Congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH) is a severe birth defect. For babies born with CDH, their diaphragms are not developed properly, with some or all parts of the abdominal organs pushed into the chest. The displacement of these critical organs can have a significant impact on how the lungs develop and grow. 

Dr. Yufeng Shen
Yufeng Shen, PhD, associate professor of systems biology

A recent study , led by Yufeng Shen , PhD, and Wendy Chung , MD, PhD, and their labs at Columbia University Irving Medical Center , investigated the genetic risk factors linked to CDH and analyzed data from whole genome sequencing and exome sequencing to determine novel mutations. The study also uncovered the link between CDH and additional developmental disorders. 

“Many babies with this birth defect also have lung hypoplasia or pulmonary hypertension and babies have difficulty breathing. Even with advanced care available, the mortality rate is still about 20 percent,” says Dr. Shen, associate professor of systems biology at Columbia, with a joint appointment in the Department of Biomedical Informatics

“One hypothesis is that the lung condition is not necessarily caused by the physical compression on the developing lungs in the chest,” explains Dr. Shen, “it can be caused by the same genetic defect that causes CDH. Finding those genes is absolutely necessary to improve care and develop effective treatment in the long run.”   

Scientists have been aiming to identify new risk genes in CDH—and other developmental disorders—with  the hope that with improved genetic diagnosis more tailored or long-term care for patients born with this defect could be provided, as well as potential targets for intervention down the road. 

Nicholas Tatonetti, PhD
Nicholas Tatonetti, Phd

Nicholas Tatonetti , PhD, solves problems. He has always enjoyed it, and as the informatics community has discovered, he is both creative and proficient in his methods.

Dr. Tatonetti, who was recently awarded tenure and promoted to the rank of Associate Professor in the Columbia Department of Biomedical Informatics (DBMI) and Department of Systems Biology , focuses on the use of advanced data science methods, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, to investigate medicine safety. Using emerging resources, such as electronic health records (EHR) and genomics databases, his lab is working to identify for whom these drugs will be safe and effective and for whom they will not.

His path to Columbia wasn’t a traditional one, but that fits his work. Since joining in 2012, Dr. Tatonetti has used non-traditional thinking to benefit both health and healthcare.

Utilizing both data mining of medical records and prospective lab experiments, Dr. Tatonetti created a methodology for both finding and validating adverse drug reactions and drug-drug interactions. During a two-year collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sam Roe of the Chicago Tribune , Dr. Tatonetti discovered that the drugs ceftriaxone and lansoprazole, when taken together, induces an arrhythmia in the heart.

The data mining identified adverse effects, while the lab experiments established causality. Dr. Tatonetti wasn’t specifically looking for a negative reaction of those particular drugs; he had no reason to suspect them.

“We are able to find things that nobody expects to happen because the world of hypotheses we consider is basically everything,” he said. “We consider every possible combination, a type of analysis that would be impossible without a huge data set and significant computational power.”