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Pitt gets $11 million grant to make medical data analysis easier

| Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014, 5:21 p.m.

Researchers believe health information captured in patient records, digital images and molecular-level research could help them better understand what makes people sick.

But sorting through millions of pages of nuanced data to find causes of disease has become a chronic challenge for biomedical scholars in the digital age.

A four-year, $11 million federal grant to the University of Pittsburgh announced Thursday should help make that medical data analysis easier.

The money from the National Institutes of Health will finance the new Pitt Center for Causal Modeling and Discovery of Biomedical Knowledge from Big Data, part of a national effort that will include a dozen new research centers and as much as $650 million in federal money through 2020.

“Mammoth data sets are emerging at an accelerated pace in today's biomedical research, and these funds will help us overcome the obstacles to maximizing their utility,” NIH Director Francis S. Collins said. “The potential of these data, when used effectively, is quite astounding.”

The center in Pittsburgh includes about 30 faculty researchers from Pitt, Carnegie Mellon University, the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center and Yale University, said Dr. Gregory Cooper, a Pitt School of Medicine professor who will lead the operation.

He said the center will hire about a dozen other full-time researchers — programmers, graduate students and postdoctoral workers — and three or four new support staff members.

The group will use existing algorithms and develop new ones to analyze medical data, looking for risk factors that trigger disease and how the body responds to different medical treatments at the cellular level. Researchers will release effective algorithms — essentially a way to process mathematical calculations — to the wider scientific research community.

“We thought now was the right time to really make these algorithms available to biomedical scientists to try to advance medical discoveries from this deluge of data,” said Cooper, who added the work will help foster future therapies.

The Pittsburgh-based team will explore data representing two types of chronic lung disease, genetic factors in cancer and connections among parts of the brain, he said. The brain work will center in part on autism and schizophrenia.

“We hope that can help with diagnosis and potentially, down the line, a more fundamental understanding of those diseases,” Cooper said.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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