UK's New Institute for Biomedical Informatics Advances Data-Enabled Discovery

In the modern era of electronic medical records and increasingly sophisticated care, one of the greatest opportunities for health innovation and medical discoveries lies not in a lab or a clinic, but in data.

The progressively routine acquisition of many types of data in health care has created numerous opportunities, as well as challenges, in the analysis and interpretation of this data. The emerging academic discipline of data science — which covers the entire lifecycle of data collection, curation, annotation, provenance, integration, exploration, sharing, secondary use and bioinformatics analytics — has the potential to enable great advances in health care and medical knowledge.

At the University of Kentucky, the new Institute for Biomedical Informatics (IBI) is leading the effort to translate big data into actionable information and leverage the latest technologies to advance biomedical sciences. A campuswide center for data-intensive, interdisciplinary research, IBI promotes translational team science, leads informatics and data science training programs, shares research and data infrastructure and enables technology innovation.

UK is distinctly positioned in this capacity because of its large health data repository housed in the UK Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS) Enterprise Data Trust, which contains regional, state, and national data on clinical and health outcomes.

GQ Zhang, PhD, leads the IBI. He also serves as chief of the Division of Biomedical Informatics (BMI) in the UK College of Medicine and director of the biomedical informatics core of the CCTS. The division of BMI in the College of Medicine serves as the academic home for a group of IBI faculty, while the overlap with the CCTS BMI core connects IBI to the clinical and translational research enterprise.

“The institute is a platform where we can more readily coordinate data and informatics efforts across the entire campus, engaging in research, educational and collaborative initiatives," Zhang said.

The IBI has already made great strides in its mission since it was approved by the UK Board of Trustees in June 2016. In only six months, the institute has won extramural funding, launched collaborative and educational initiatives, and expanded its research staff. It is also now inviting faculty to join as IBI members.

In August 2016, the IBI was awarded a $2.4 million Major Research Instrumentation Award from the National Science Foundation to create a big data computing infrastructure, called the Kentucky Research Informatics Cloud (KyRIC). KyRIC will markedly enhance advanced computational infrastructure for accelerating scientific discovery through computational- and data-intensive research that exploits enormous amounts of data available at UK. The project will specifically advance a number of exciting research programs across many disciplines, such as bioinformatics and system biology algorithms, large graph and evolutionary network analysis, image processing, and computational modeling and simulation.

Collaborative team science is central to the work of the IBI. Launching, operationalizing, and managing KyRIC involve concerted effort with UK’s Center for Computational Science and the research computing unit of UK’s Information Technology Service. The IBI also works closely with the CCTS, integrating the biomedical informatics core of the CCTS with academic and research units across the UK campus. Additionally, the IBI played an instrumental role in the CCTS' successful application for a second $20 million Clinical and Translational Science Award from the National Institutes of Health, awarded in August 2016.

Together, the IBI and CCTS recently launched a lunch-and-learn demonstration series for informatics tools, in addition to IBI's active informatics seminar series with external speakers.

The IBI has also started working with the UK Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC) for invention and commercialization opportunities. Potential collaborative projects include patent applications for IBI's inventions in data management and visualization platforms.

“We plan to work very actively together on a number of fronts, because we are one of the most software- and informatics-intensive units on campus. We create tools and there's a lot of synergy in tying such efforts to tech transfer," Zhang said. “I think both parties are very excited because software and technology remain among the most active business sectors for innovation."       

IBI's collaborations extend beyond campus, as well. The institute serves as the data coordination center of the Center for SUDEP (sudden and unexpected death of a person diagnosed with epilepsy) Research at Case Western Reserve University. Zhang also serves as one of the principal investigators on a collaboration with Harvard University to develop a big data resource called the National Sleep Research Resource (NSRR), which provides access to a rich collection of sleep research data collected on children and adults across the U.S. Both collaborations are funded by the National Institutes of Health.

To support its rapidly growing portfolio of research, educational offerings, and collaborations, the IBI has hired two new faculty members and is currently recruiting assistant, associate, or full professors in the division of biomedical informatics in the UK College of Medicine. IBI and university leadership are also considering the possibility of establishing a campus-wide graduate informatics program with multiple curricula pathways from data to discovery.

"Leveraging UK's wealth of data is central to our mission to improve care, make health discoveries, and train the upcoming generation of health professionals and researchers," said UK Provost Tim Tracy. "The creation of the IBI reflects the university's commitment to addressing the challenges and opportunities associated with big data. In a short time, the IBI has established robust infrastructure and expertise in informatics that will no doubt lead to exciting opportunities for discovery and learning."

Membership Information:

The institute is now also inviting faculty to join as members. Membership benefits include professional and educational development; mentor/mentee opportunities; access to tools, data and computational resources, and pilot funding; and a broad network of researchers, clinicians, educators, industrial partners, and other campus centers.  Membership is open to UK faculty from any college or department engaged in peer-reviewed, informatics, data-intensive, or computational research, and clinical faculty who engage in clinical informatics or provide leadership in developing translational, clinical data resources to advance translational research. Learn more and apply here.

Media Contact: Mallory Powell, mallory.powell@uky.edu