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UTMB-Galveston Director of Computational Cancer Bio-Medicine Training Program discusses new grant
by Lora-Marie Bernard
Monday, February 13, 2017

The University of Texas Medical Branch - Galveston recently received a grant to train an elite group of future medical leaders who can develop new technologies that combine computational biology and cancer biology.

Monte Pettitt, director of the Sealy Center for Structural Biology and Molecular Biophysics, serves also as the training director for the grant program. He discussed with Guidry News how the collaboration leverages resources and leadership from six Texas medical institutions. He said the goal of the program is to prepare future leaders to use both disciplines. Studying cancer biology alone addresses only one part of patient treatment. The research training grant is from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

“There are so many processes that are related and people have studied these over the years, but to get an idea of how they all inter-relate, computation is very important,” he said. “We can build a computational model of these systems and so-called systems biology models that allow us to then test different ideas about what is causing one form of cancer versus another. This can be something that is very general and one can attempt to apply it to cancers of the same sort or it can be specific, a personalized medicine or patient-specific medicine.” Listen (15:12)

Mining patient data and understanding the biology of a cancer must dovetail to determine what has gone wrong with a patient, he said.

“It becomes a problem of putting together both the medical patients records, all sorts of other kinds of scans of their genes and what the cells are making, scans of how the cells are metabolizing different things,” Pettitt explained. “To put together this whole picture, of course, involves a great deal of computation.”

He added that the computational cancer biomedicine program allows 10 post-doctoral fellows to be trained in that “in-between” area of cancer biology and computational biology.

“They would learn how to apply modern techniques of computational science to these problems and cancer,” he said. “And these people are basically very close to going into the workforce at this point and so they are sort of the people who would have the most direct impact on the workforce in cancer. They would be probably the future leaders in the field as well. They would take the field forward from here.”

The grant also has an undergraduate component that allows 10 students to study over one summer within the six institutional laboratories. In addition to UTMB, the collaborative institutions are: University of Houston, Rice University, Baylor College of Medicine, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and The University of Texas Health Science Center-Houston.

“They would go into different labs and try to find out what doing research in this area is all about,” he said.

Pettitt said that the grant brings a unique collaboration aspect because it requires students to have two mentors in order to gauge how well they are combining both studies into research methods.

“Obviously this would not be for everyone, but the idea would be that they could come in with strength in one area,” he said. “Say, they came in with a strength in cancer biology, but they really wanted to learn about the computational part. So the program is designed so that they have a primary mentor, but then they would spend time in the secondary mentor’s lab to learn how to do the other side of the coin.”

The practical implications of the study and research are far-reaching, Pettitt said.  A personalized medicine approach to a pediatric cancer patient is one goal, but so are much broader applications.

“One of our colleagues at Baylor has been looking at ways to use electron microscopy to identify the inner workings, the skeleton within a cell, and what goes right and what goes wrong in different forms of blood cancer,” he said. “That is something that can be used very, very, broadly and if he successfully gets that technology developed it would be something in the future that could become a routine diagnostic.”

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