On Aug. 16, the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the awardees for 60 new grants. UTHealth School of Biomedical Informatics (SBMI) Associate Professor W. Jim Zheng, Ph.D., M.S. was one of the grant award recipients.

Zheng is a bioinformatician who joined SBMI in 2013 and is trained in several biological areas of study and computer science. With this CPRIT award, Zheng aims to “analyze data for all forms of cancer and all scales, while utilizing expertise in each area of biomedical research; from population studies to individual patients and all the way down to molecular and gene expression research.”

Dr. Zheng

Zheng’s father, Yeming Zheng, died in 1995 after suffering from liver cancer. “When my father passed away, I was in graduate school," Zheng noted. “My interests in working to fight and cure cancer started during that time.”

Over the past 10 to 20 years, “technology has ushered in a transition in biomedical research that has taken us from low-throughput to high-throughput research methods,” says Zheng. “Low-throughput research involves the use of humans and high-throughput research uses robotics.” Zheng also states that as a result of the transition, there has been a “paradigm shift from the data generation model to a data analysis model.” This demonstrates why the data Zheng plans to evaluate with the CPRIT grant is so critically important in the fight to end the global cancer epidemic.

The grant, titled “Data Science and Informatics Core for Cancer Research,” or DSICCR, is worth over $5.8 million. According to the grant submission lay summary, the project aims to translate the cutting-edge data science and informatics research at SBMI to easily accessible, high quality, and user-friendly software and services to advance cancer research.

SBMI Dean and Glassell Family Foundation Distinguished Chair in Informatics Excellence, Jiajie Zhang, Ph.D. shared his insight by noting that “the ‘Big Data’ era gave way to the term data science.” Zhang continued stating “data science, synonymous to informatics in a general sense, utilizes various processes to take uninterpreted data through several channels until the result is intelligence or actionable knowledge for clinical care, disease prevention and biomedical discovery. Dr. Zheng’s CPRIT grant uses that same methodology; he will take unfiltered ‘Big Data’ from many sources and give cancer researchers the tools they need to advance disease prevention.”

Zheng’s goal with DSICCR is to “build a large infrastructure using more than one petabyte of data to provide data science and informatics services to cancer researchers.” Data will come from sources like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), international consortia, hospitals and clinics, payers and other entities. This gives researchers access to tens of millions of patient records and biological data from across the globe.

By mining the records and data for co-morbidity (e.g. simultaneous presence of two chronic diseases or conditions in a patient) and disease correlation (e.g. can an inflamed pancreas lead to pancreatic cancer) Zheng wants to “keep cancer researchers informed about the latest methods and their application in cancer research.”

DSICCR will initially include 12 projects with 12 additional investigators from UTHealth schools, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Texas A&M University and more.  The three overall objectives among the projects are to provide researchers with easy access to unique resources, offer services to other CPRIT core researchers and to help cancer researchers better analyze data.

“Researchers have historically been hypothesis-driven but detailed ‘Big Data’ analysis means researchers can be data-driven and find clues and facts from sifted information.” Zheng elaborated that “a better understanding of the data leads to more efficient uses of data; researchers can then develop hypotheses based on findings.”

The tools that Zheng plans to offer cancer researchers will be shared within Texas first, then expanded beyond state lines. The project start date is Sept. 1 of this year and it will conclude on Aug. 31 in 2022.

 published on 08/22/2017 at 5:22 p.m.