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McWilliams School of Biomedical Informatics awarded over $31 million in medical AI grants

McWilliams School of Biomedical Informatics Logo on top of a researcher using AI graphic

McWilliams School of Biomedical Informatics at UTHealth Houston reached a funding landmark from Aug. to Oct. of 2023. During that two-month period, fifteen faculty members were awarded sixteen different grants totaling more than $31 million. Each grant has a focus on medical artificial intelligence (AI) innovations and advancements in research or healthcare.

“This is an incredible achievement for our school and these grants play a key role in advancing informatics research while also expanding on the important role technology continues to play in medicine,” said Jiajie Zhang, PhD, dean and Glassell Family Foundation Distinguished Chair in Informatics Excellence. “All of the newly awarded grants center around medical AI and our world is at the start of the ‘Cognitive Revolution’ which is driven by AI. There is no better time for these types of critically important research studies and developments.”

The sixteen grants include fourteen new awards and two supplemental awards for a total amounted of $31,285,374. Five of the awards, including two U01 grants and three R01 grants, are from the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute on Aging and total over $19 million.

McWilliams School of Biomedical Informatics Professor Degui Zhi, PhD was awarded a supplement to a current NIH National Institute on Aging project. The $380,624 budget will supplement the $4.8 million grant as Zhi and his fellow researchers benchmark the AI algorithms they are developing on a standardized neuroimaging dataset.

Yejin Kim, PhD, assistant professor, was awarded a NIH National Institute on Aging grant that is worth nearly $4 million. The Christopher Sarofim Family Professorship in Biomedical Informatics and Bioengineering Professor and Chair in the Department of Health Data Science and Artificial Intelligence, Xiaoqian Jiang, PhD, is also an investigator on this project aimed at treatment efficacy of Alzheimer’s disease therapy. Ultimately, the developments for this project will help other researchers who design clinical trials by allowing them to focus on more homogeneous patient subgroups for targeted therapy.

According to Kim, “there is still a critical gap in our understanding of why some patients do not respond to treatment.” The research team will use the grant funds to develop ML models to identify patient subgroups who respond differently to treatments. “Not only can our proposed ML model identify an individual patient’s treatment efficacy, but the ML model is built in a privacy-preserving manner, without sharing patient-level data to an outside party,” noted Kim.

Professor Cui Tao, PhD is contributing on three recently awarded grants, including serving as the contact principal investigator for a five-year National Institute on Aging grant worth over $5.7 million. GQ Zhang, PhD, vice president and chief data scientist for UTHealth Houston, who is also a part-time professor for the school, is collaborating on the grant. The project goal is to build the proposed Alzheimer's disease Clinical Trial Simulation (ACTS) framework; a standardized, accessible, and reusable platform for AD trial design and simulation.

“The pressing need to address the challenges in Alzheimer's disease and related dementias (AD/ADRD) research inspired our exploration of this topic,” noted Tao. “The increasing prevalence of AD/ADRD and the limitations of traditional randomized clinical trials motivated us to seek innovative solutions and we recognized that the integration of real-world data and clinical trial simulation could offer a transformative approach to advance our understanding of AD/ADRD and potentially lead to finding more effective treatments.”

Professor Zhongming Zhao, PhD serves as an investigator on three different grants. The first of which is a newly awarded grant and joint project with Department Chair and Professor Dr. Xiaoqian Jiang. This National Institute on Aging grant, which is the largest of the awards earned by McWilliams faculty during this cycle, is worth over $6.4 million. Zhao and Jiang aim to advance Alzheimer's Disease research by creating the “AIM-AI” genetic map. This tool has “the ability to transform the genetic catalog of Alzheimer’s Disease in a way that is actionable, integrated, and multiscale,” according to Zhao. Ultimately, AIM-AI will allow genetics to be integrated with other modalities and have clear utility for subsequent etiological and drug discovery studies.

Jiang is an investigator on six of the sixteen awards; the most for McWilliams faculty during this recent award period. He was awarded the final NIH National Institute on Aging grant, which is worth over $3.4 million, to establish a comprehensive informatics framework that integrates ontology and computational phenotyping to harmonize EHRs. “I am hoping we will build a digital patient profile over the trajectory of more than a decade. Alzheimer’s disease is gradual, and there are multiple evident sources that we can use to profile the degree of cognitive function changes influenced by multiple chronic conditions in different subpopulations,” Jiang said.

The NIH’s National Library of Medicine (NLM) awarded three new grants to McWilliams School of Biomedical Informatics faculty members and another NLM grant was transferred to the school. Assistant Professor and two-time McWilliams Alumna Laila Rasmy Bekhet, PhD ’21, MS ’17 was awarded her first grant in Aug. of this year. With the nearly $1.4 million grant from the NLM, Bekhet will contribute to the revolutionary field of medical AI by creating enhanced training methods for clinical foundation models. These models have the potential to not only enhance the performance of a variety of clinical predictive models but also offer a viable solution to common issues that impede the acceptance of deep learning-based models in practice. Additionally, clinical foundation models can play a crucial role in providing accurate and comprehensive contextual and temporal representations of patients.

While Bekhet serves as the principal investigator, McWilliams Professors Cui Tao, PhD and Degui Zhi, PhD, along with Adjunct Professor Hua Xu, PhD (Yale University), are additional investigators providing support.  “I am eager to push the boundaries of scientific knowledge and contribute to the development of improved medical AI solutions that can further enhance health outcomes. I am confident that the world is eagerly awaiting our groundbreaking discoveries," stated Bekhet.

For one of his six grants, Dr. Jiang was awarded $3.2 million from the NLM to advance genomic research while maintaining strict data privacy standards. The main project focus is to foster data sharing and collaborative research in the field of genomics, while maintaining stringent data privacy standards. Ultimately, the project will result in creating seamless integration with the Institutional Review Board (IRB) to facilitate the ethical review process.

Dr. Zhao is also working with Professor Xiangning Chen, PhD on a supplement worth $624,709 for their NLM grant. Those funds will help the researchers continue developing deep learning methods to transform genetic and genomic data into image-like objects and custom vocabulary for better data use in genetic research.

In Sept., Interim Chair for the Department of Bioinformatics and Systems Medicine and Professor Hongfang Liu, PhD, who is a distinguished Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas Scholar, transferred a NLM grant worth almost $1.9 million to McWilliams. This project Liu will continue focuses on advancing informatics research on cohort discovery and identification. The goal is to develop informatics solutions to enhance applications of EHR data for clinical research. The results will positively impact EHR data applications like learning healthcare systems, predictive modeling, and AI in healthcare.

The NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute issued two awards to our faculty during this recent cycle. Dr. Zhi earned a competitive renewal award for his grant that was originally awarded in 2018. Zhi’s team has spent the last few years building a new informatics tools that reveals detailed genetic relationships between humans. With the new funds, the researchers plan to further their work with “RaPID” –  the first computationally feasible method for inferring identity-by-descent segments among individuals in a biobank-scale cohort.

Dr. Liu was also awarded a new National Human Genome Research Institute grant worth $2.8 million. This project is aimed at addressing the diagnostic odysseys rare disease patients experience. According to the NIH, “an estimated 25 to 30 million Americans are affected” by rare diseases. Liu noted that “due to the lack of clinical evidence and empirical knowledge, awareness of rare diseases remains low among healthcare providers.” Liu’s research aims to address the translation gap by building an innovative, end-to-end informatics framework to accelerate the diagnosis of rare diseases.

Two of Dr. Jiang’s awards are part of the NIH’s Intelligence/Machine Learning Consortium to Advance Health Equity and Researcher Diversity (AIM-AHEAD) Program. Those grants are collaborations with both Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI). For the first AIM-AHEAD project, in which Assistant Professor Kai Zhang, PhD is assisting by serving in a key personnel role, Jiang and his research colleagues will utilize Machine Learning (ML) and AI tools to examine the role donor-recipient blood type mismatches play in heart transplantations and help reduce health disparities by formulating interventions. The second AIM-AHEAD award includes Assistant Professor Arif Harmanci, PhD and Associate Professor Han Chen, PhD as part of the team of researchers. For that collaborative grant, Jiang and his colleagues will work with faculty from Tuskegee University to strengthen data governance and facilitate the adoption of AI/ML technologies, while ensuring the ethical treatment and representation of minority populations.

For his final grant, Dr. Zhao is collaborating with two other researchers outside of McWilliams on a National Cancer Institute grant worth over $2.3 million. That grant, which focuses in personalized immunotherapy for the lymphatics, aims to advance cancer treatment research by utilizing state-of the-art imaging technologies, expertise in cancer vaccine design and production, single cell RNA sequencing, immunoprofiling, and multiplex immunofluorescence.

Associate Professor and Assistant Dean of Education Informatics Toufeeq Syed, PhD was awarded a one-year $269,964 grant from the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Syed, who joined McWilliams this summer, will use the funds to develop an accessible and open online, asynchronous course on a scalable platform for a diverse population of trainees within the biomedical research space.

Lastly, McWilliams Professor Xiaobo Zhou, PhD, who holds the Dr. and Mrs. Carl V. Vartian Professorship in Clinical Informatics was also awarded a grant. Zhou, along with Assistant Professor Jianguo Wen, PhD and Postdoctoral Research Fellow Jiajia Liu, PhD, earned a National Science Foundation “Infrastructure Innovation for Biological Research” grant worth over $515,000. The funds will be used to create novel ML approaches to advance the study of cell development.

Many of the grants will result in numerous research and job opportunities for new faculty or current UTHealth Houston students. “In order to deliver on all of these projects, our school will need motivated researchers to work side-by-side with the faculty members. The grants serve as a platform to propel the next generation of informatics leaders,” Dean Zhang stated.

Chelsea Overstreet

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