NIH awards Brown $10.8M to expand data-informed research to fight human disease

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Five years after an $11.5 million federal grant launched the COBRE Center for Computational Biology of Human Disease at Brown University, the National Institutes of Health has awarded $10.8M in new funds to Brown to build on the center’s early success.

The center — a federal Center of Biomedical Research Excellence funded by the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences — uses sophisticated computer analyses to advance research aimed at understanding and fighting human diseases.

Director David Rand, a professor of biology at Brown, said the renewal funds will enhance the center’s research infrastructure, enable strengthened collaboration among scientists working with computational and bioinformatics tools, and support four new research projects. Rand said there is a “computational revolution” happening in the biomedical sciences, as researchers need computational analyses to help them make sense of massive amounts of available data.

“Even those working in wet labs or clinics who don’t use computers in their daily work will at some point need assistance in analyzing complex data sets,” he said.

Rand compared the current moment to the molecular biology revolution that’s been changing science since the 1970s, when DNA cloning and sequencing became standard tools used by researchers across diverse fields. Computational analysis is bringing groups together today in a similar way, he said. For example, people working in engineering, computer science, basic biology and medicine will face situations where they need to convert data sets into information that can help them find solutions and answer questions. While their research projects are highly distinct, he said, the data analysis work shares common themes.

“In addition to helping researchers with individual projects, we view the Center for Computational Biology of Human Disease as a vehicle for raising the level of computational ability for researchers in the community overall,” Rand said.

To provide that service to COBRE project leaders and researchers across Brown, the center is home to a Computational Biology Core — a group of four scientists, data analysts and software engineers who support data-intensive research. With the renewal grant, center leaders will work to build sustainable support for the group through continued funding to its scientists and support to ensure that four members are at the Ph.D.-level (past budget included support for two Ph.D.s and two master’s-level scientists).

“Everyone has large data sets and needs to convert these into useful information, and we aim to help people achieve that goal,” Rand said. “The center brings together researchers in the lab and clinic with exceptionally skilled and creative data scientists to turn data into information.”

Funds from the grant will also support the research of junior faculty investigators and help position them to earn additional, longer-term funding for their work — enabling them, Rand said, to build upon discoveries and continue their research while freeing up center funds to seed innovative new projects. With the initial $11.5 million from the NIH in the center’s first phase, faculty projects at the Center for Computational Biology of Human Disease generated an additional $17.9 million in grants in areas of research such as human genomics, immunology and infectious disease, microbiome and machine learning approaches to complex genetics.

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