UCL Genetics Institute


Nick Luscombe receives MRC Grant as part of the Medical Bioinformatics Initiative

15 April 2014

Medical informatics is about to come of age. What has been an emerging trickle of funding is starting to amount to a substantial flow. In the UK alone, the Medical Research Council (MRC) along with other research councils, charities, and health departments are investing in big data to the tune of £90 million over a 5-year period.

Providing a lead in this emerging specialty, the MRC has recently granted major awards totalling £32 million for the Medical Bioinformatics Initiative aimed at improving capability, capacity, and infrastructure in medical bioinformatics. The move is being driven by advances in new digital technologies that rapidly generate and analyse reams of complex biologicaland patient data revealing secrets that, until now, have been buried along with any novel insights into disease processes and unexplored potential avenues of therapy.

Health care in the UK provides a solid foundation for medical informatics, unmatched elsewhere in the world. The National Health Service (NHS) is increasingly storing patient data in secure electronic format to aid evaluation of health-care measures andthe long-term effects of treatments. Medical informatics soon looks likely to benefit from the addition of much-needed data from general practitioner practices in England, and the recently opened Farr Institute already provides research access to patient records.

Rhoswyn Walker is programme manager with the Molecular and Cellular Medicine Board at the MRC, and led the implementation of the most recent call for grant applications. She explains that to build the UK's medical bioinformatics infrastructure, two core aspects require substantial development. “We need the hard and fast kit and buildings, and then the personnel with the necessary skill set to make best use of the infrastructure. The MRC's recent investments have had a mix of capital and resource, including training in the form of fellowships.”

Walker notes that people are a fundamental investment due to a gap in the skill space requiring statisticians, mathematicians, and people that have not necessarily worked in a biomedical setting previously.

Mark Pallen, professor of microbial genomics at the University of Warwick, together with partners including Sam Sheppard, reader in microbiology and infectious disease at the University of Swansea, have received an £8·5 million award that exemplifies the inter-disciplinary nature of the scheme. The MRC Consortium for Medical Microbial Bioinformatics award primarily supports the development of infrastructure, but it will also fund three fellowships. “We've managed to nudge three high potential researchers into bioinformatics. We want to harness their abilities. One originally trained as a medic, one a biostatistician working on human population genomics, and one a physical engineer”, says Pallen.

Their research focus will be the medical problems related to microbes and pathogens that live on and in humans. “There are so many thousands of bacterial species associated with humans that the range of sequences derived from these microbial communities is enormous.” But because genome sequences can be generated more rapidly and economically than ever before, the bottleneck has shifted to analysis of sequence data. Pallen notes that, “this new initiative will help to open that bottleneck, by providing researchers with the relevant infrastructure—a cloud of virtual computers customised for medical microbial bioinformatics.”

Ultimately, Pallen hopes that the award will deliver a comprehensive overview of human microbial communities, and support research into the spread of hospital infections, the evolution of drug resistance, and the identification of pathogens through sequence-based approaches. “We want to help microbiologists study how microbial cells and communities work and how pathogens emerge, evolve, and spread, placing powerful but user-friendly bioinformatics tools in the hands of academics and clinical staff across the UK”, he says.

Receiving the highest monetary value award in this call, Nick Luscombe, a computational biologist based at University College London (UCL) and the Francis Crick Institute, working closely with David Lomas and Peter Coveney at UCL and Jim Smith, director of the National Institute for Medical Research, have welcomed £8·9 million for Medical Bioinformatics: Data-Driven Discovery for Personalised Medicine.

Luscombe and his colleagues intend to build a bridge between computational expertise and the vast amounts of human data beinggenerated in the NHS. “We are working closely with clinicians to develop methods to look at these clinical datasets.”

Luscombe emphasises that medical informatics should turn conventional clinical problem-solving on its head. Medicine usually identifies a problem then works backwards for understanding, and often, effective treatments are given without fully understanding the mechanism. “Now with molecular datasets we can work forwards. It brings the two sides together—the molecular and the observational. This is taking advantage of these huge datasets that allow researchers to move beyond simple one-to-one correlations to multi-dimensional analysis incorporating many factors.”

Article source: The Lancet