News

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.