University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

Laura L. Hunt

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Oct 7, 2011 
New institute unites faculty in bioinformatics
New bioinformatics institute
Hong Yu, associate professor of Health Informatics and Administration in the College of Health Sciences (left), and Peter Tonellato, a professor in School of Public Health, are the interim directors of a new bioinformatics institute at UWM.

Health care providers are increasing looking to bioinformatics for quick and accurate search and sorting of electronic patient records, online medical literature and figures, and even managing the sea of data contained in individual patient genomes.

At UWM more than 30 faculty members spread across seven UWM schools and colleges are involved in this kind of research and teaching.  

To better coordinate the efforts from various disciplines working in bioinformatics or medical informatics – and to go after larger external grants – are the main goals of the newly created Biomedical and Health Informatics Research Institute (BHIRI).

In the past three years, UWM bioinformatics researchers have won a total of $10 million in grant funding.

“But we have lacked a centralized organization that can catalyze those activities,” says David Yu, interim dean of the UWM Graduate School. “We think that by organizing our resources this way, we can attract even bigger grant amounts. It can be a game-changer for us.”

This is a highly interdisciplinary and highly collaborative field and the large grant-awarding organizations, such as the National Science Foundation, are looking for evidence of that for the larger awards, he says.

Biomedical informatics holds the promise of improving health care through the use of smart technologies, but also of holding down costs because of increased efficiency, says Hong Yu, associate professor of Health Informatics and Administration in the College of Health Sciences.

Intelligent bioinformatics programs allow health care providers to easily detect important correlations and contradictions that accelerate and support health care decision-making.

“The steps needed to take electronic medical data from the laboratory bench side to the patient bedside will come from bioinformatics,” says Hong Yu, who has just been awarded a $2.55 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for a search engine that targets medical figures, such as charts and graphs.

The research at UWM encompasses a wide array of data-mining technologies with various applications.

Six schools involved in the institute include Health Sciences, Nursing, Engineering, Public Health, Information Studies and Business. If the departments of Mathematics and Biological Sciences become involved, as they are expected to, the College of Letters and Science would become the seventh.

Initially, the institute will be headed by Hong Yu and Peter Tonellato, a professor in School of Public Health who holds a joint appointment between UWM and Harvard University. Tonellato previously worked at the Medical College of Wisconsin and is an expert in applying Whole Genome Analysis (WGA) tools to personalized medicine.

The institute will also benefit the students enrolled in two UWM academic programs in the College of Health Sciences as well as the joint doctoral degree program between UWM’s College of Engineering & Applied Science and MCW.

The new institute will strengthen that partnership and raise the profile of the UWM cluster. The group has written a grant in partnership with six departments at MCW proposing a joint translational bioinformatics training ground.