U-M Precision Health recognizes cutting-edge research with Investigators Awards

October 25, 2018  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees

Precision Health at the University of Michigan is happy to announce 10 recipients of its Investigators Awards, which include grants of up to $300,000 each over two years. The grants, totaling nearly $3 million, will support research in a spectrum of precision health fields, including wearable technology, machine learning, predictive modeling, genetic analysis, imaging, and social science.

Awardees were chosen from among an initial pool of more than 100 applicants with significant research projects.

“It was exciting to learn about the breadth of activities proposed across the many strong grant applications, and challenging to choose the 10 that were eventually funded,” said U-M Precision Health Co-Director Mike Boehnke. “We look forward to learning from these projects, and to seeing the next round of proposals in 2019.”

Following are examples of the research projects that will be funded by Investigators Awards.

Curbing the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria

“Antibiotic-resistant bacteria cause over one million infections in the U.S. every year,” said Sriram Chandrasekaran, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering. “We propose to develop a computational tool that identifies antibiotics tailored to specific antibiotic-resistant strains and to the patient.”

His project, “Personalized therapies for drug-resistant infections using a multi-scale host-pathogen model,” aims to “shift current clinical practice by changing an empirical, one-size-fits-all approach to a rational approach specific to the pathogen strain and the patient.”

“The large diversity of bacterial strains and large variation in patient responses to infection greatly complicates the choice of drug treatments,” Chandrasekaran said. “Combining information on the patient, bacteria, and drugs using powerful computational models on a personalized level will transform our ability to manage infections. Our study can help shape public health policies and lead to more effective control of drug resistant infections.”

This precision-health research brings together “cutting-edge methods from computer science, systems biology, epidemiology, microbiology, immunology and pharmacodynamics,” Chandrasekaran said. “We have assembled a unique team of investigators with expertise from the school of engineering, medicine, and public health, which is only possible at U-M!”

Improving the usefulness of a kidney biopsy in Lupus nephritis prognoses

Jeffrey Hodgin, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of renal pathology, also recognized that U-M “actively promotes” precision health research, “and has ample resources, such as multiple high-quality core facilities, readily available for research teams, which is crucial to success.”

With his project, “Digital Pathology and Image Analysis for Lupus nephritis,” Hodgin and his collaborative team of pathologists, nephrologists, rheumatologists, biostatisticians and information technology experts want to “improve prognostic utility of the kidney biopsy in Lupus nephritis (LN),” by applying “a novel, morphologic descriptor-based scoring system, novel computer-aided digital pathology image analysis, and machine-learning and deep-learning techniques.”

Advancements in digital image technology over the last decade have “begun to challenge established light microscopy-based protocols,” said Hodgin. “The prognostic significance of conventional, histopathologic classification of LN is controversial, which has led to calls for efforts to improve accuracy and reproducibility. Because our approach is quantitative and integrates pathology and clinical data for outcome prediction, we believe it will prove superior to the conventional, semi-quantitative pathology analysis.”

Establishing an open repository of polygenic risk scores

Lars Fritsche, Ph.D., assistant research scientist in biostatistics, plans to utilize genetic and electronic health record data from the Michigan Genomics Initiative (MGI) to enable other researchers to generate new hypotheses and potentially improve disease detection and decision-making on the clinical level.

We aim to develop a user-friendly online catalog of polygenic risk scores supported by interactive, exploratory tools, so that users all around the world can explore their associations with the phenomes of MGI and the UK Biobank,” said Fritsche. “This way, we enable users to bypass the complexity and cost of creating various polygenic risk scores, and help them generate new hypotheses for future studies.”

The research project, “Development of an Open Repository of Polygenic Risk Scores (PRS) with an Interactive Visual Catalog,” will “condense published findings from large genome-wide association studies of complex diseases into summary measures of inherited risk — namely, polygenic risk scores — and explore their suitability for risk stratification,” said Fritsche. “The ultimate goal is to inform targeted screening, prevention and prognosis.”

The availability of MGI’s large medical phenome,” he continued, “offers the opportunity to uncover secondary trait associations that share a genetic component with the primary trait of interest.” This approach could “uncover key pre-symptomatic diagnoses or biomarkers that could themselves be used as predictors.”

To Fritsche, U-M is “a place where we can naturally build stellar interdisciplinary research teams to practice science beyond boundaries.” He named many U-M resources and tools, such as the Central Biorepository, DataDirect, and the Michigan Institute for Data Science (MIDAS), that “stand for this process and allow seamless integration and compatibility with institutional priorities and strategic initiatives.”

These wide-ranging, innovative projects demonstrate why U-M is fertile ground for precision-health research: the depth and breadth of topic areas; the inclusive, collaborative spirit that is a hallmark of U-M; and a passion for creative approaches and innovative ways to tackle health-related problems.

Beyond its monetary support, Precision Health aims to provide the tools, expertise, and access these researchers need to connect with colleagues across campus and to publicize and advance their work.

View a full list of awardees and their topics.

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