Extracting Vital Medical Clues

photo: Annie O'Neill Jonathan Haines

Case Western Reserve's Jonathan Haines, PhD, and fellow researchers in the Consortium for Alzheimer's Sequence Analysis are genetic cryptographers. But unlike investigators trying to read a rare cuneiform with no Rosetta stone to help, the decoders from the consortium's five universities suffer not from too few clues, but a mind-numbing abundance of information.

They're working to interpret the text of the genetic code of some 11,500 people in hopes of determining which slight variations in genes contribute to or protect against Alzheimer's disease. This past summer, the National Institutes of Health awarded the consortium $12.6 million to pursue this work over the next four years.

The task is enormously complex. Every genome has some 3.1 billion pairs of letters, known as nucleotides. Those letters can make an estimated half-million proteins. They also can issue commands about when and where the proteins are made. Haines, who leads the consortium's work at Case Western Reserve, said researchers want to compare all of this information with everything that is known about these combinations of letters.

"There's a literal sea of information and we're swimming in it," said Haines, the Mary Sheldon, MD, Professor of Genomic Sciences at the School of Medicine, chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, and director of the Institute for Computational Biology, a joint venture of the university, Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals. "We are still learning how to manage the information, how to store it, and how to sift through it," he said. "But we're getting better at it."

The Alzheimer's disease project is an example of the big-data challenges the Institute for Computational Biology aims to solve. Launched last year, the institute has the expertise and computer hardware and software needed to enable its partners to analyze their own data or combine that data to create larger databases. Either way, the aim is to identify opportunities to improve the health of individuals and the community.

The other members of the consortium are: Boston University, Columbia University, the University of Miami and the University of Pennsylvania. —JENNI LAIDMAN

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