In the era of electronic medical records, one of the greatest opportunities for health innovation lies not in a clinic, but in medical data.

New institute at UK translates medical data into better healthcare

In the modern era of electronic medical records and increasingly sophisticated care, one of the greatest opportunities for health innovation and discoveries lies not in a lab or a clinic, but in medical data.

The progressively routine acquisition of many types of data in healthcare has created numerous opportunities, as well as challenges, in the analysis and interpretation of this data. The emerging academic discipline of data science – which covers the entire life-cycle of data collection, curation, annotation, provenance, integration, exploration, sharing, secondary use and bioinformatics analytics – has the potential to enable great advances in healthcare and medical knowledge.

At UK, the new Institute for Biomedical Informatics (IBI) is leading the effort to translate big data into usable information and leverage the latest technologies to advance biomedical sciences.

The IBI makes it easier to share medical data

A campuswide center for data-intensive, interdisciplinary research, the IBI promotes translational team science, leads informatics and data science training programs, shares research and data infrastructure and enables technology innovation. UK is uniquely positioned in this capacity because of its large health data repository housed in the UK Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS) Enterprise Data Trust, which contains regional, state, and national data on clinical and health outcomes.

GQ Zhang, PhD, leads the IBI. He also serves as chief of the Division of Biomedical Informatics (BMI) in the UK College of Medicine and director of the biomedical informatics core of the CCTS. The division of BMI in the College of Medicine serves as the academic home for a group of IBI faculty, while the overlap with the CCTS BMI core connects IBI to the clinical and translational research enterprise.

“The institute is a platform where we can more readily coordinate data and informatics efforts across the entire campus, engaging in research, educational and collaborative initiatives,” Zhang said.

Collaboration fosters success

The IBI has already made great strides in its mission since it was approved by the UK Board of Trustees in June 2016. In only six months, the institute has won external funding, launched collaborative and educational initiatives, and expanded its research staff. It is also now inviting faculty to join as IBI members.

In August 2016, the IBI was awarded a $2.4 million Major Research Instrumentation Award from the National Science Foundation to create a big data computing infrastructure, called the Kentucky Research Informatics Cloud (KyRIC). KyRIC will enhance advanced computational infrastructure for accelerating scientific discovery through computational- and data-intensive research that uses the enormous amounts of data available at UK.

Collaborative team science is central to the work of the IBI. Launching and using KyRIC involves concerted effort with the UK Center for Computational Science and the research computing unit of UK Information Technology Service. The IBI also works closely with the CCTS, integrating the biomedical informatics core of the CCTS with academic and research units across the UK campus. Additionally, the IBI played an instrumental role in the CCTS’ successful application for a second $20 million Clinical and Translational Science Award from the National Institutes of Health, awarded in August 2016.

Extending work beyond campus

The IBI has also started working with the UK Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC) for invention and commercialization opportunities. Potential collaborative projects include patent applications for IBI’s inventions in data management and visualization platforms.

“We plan to work very actively together on a number of fronts, because we are one of the most software- and informatics-intensive units on campus. We create tools and there’s a lot of synergy in tying such efforts to tech transfer,” Zhang said. “I think both parties are very excited because software and technology remain among the most active business sectors for innovation.”

IBI’s collaborations extend beyond campus, as well. The institute serves as the data coordination center of the Center for SUDEP (sudden and unexpected death of a person diagnosed with epilepsy) Research at Case Western Reserve University. Zhang also serves as one of the principal investigators on a collaboration with Harvard University to develop a big data resource called the National Sleep Research Resource (NSRR), which provides access to a rich collection of sleep research data collected on children and adults across the U.S. Both collaborations are funded by the National Institutes of Health.

The IBI is growing rapidly

To support its rapidly growing portfolio of research, educational offerings and collaborations, the IBI has hired two new faculty members and is currently recruiting assistant, associate or full professors in the division of biomedical informatics in the UK College of Medicine. IBI and university leadership are also considering the possibility of establishing a campus-wide graduate informatics program with multiple curricula pathways from data to discovery.

“Leveraging UK’s wealth of data is central to our mission to improve care, make health discoveries, and train the upcoming generation of health professionals and researchers,” said UK Provost Tim Tracy. “The creation of the IBI reflects the university’s commitment to addressing the challenges and opportunities associated with big data. In a short time, the IBI has established robust infrastructure and expertise in informatics that will no doubt lead to exciting opportunities for discovery and learning.”


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