big science

The Last Major Disease To Be Studied? Ron Davis of Stanford Thinks So

Let’s say you’re a biomedical researcher looking for a place to make your mark. You find out that there is still a major disease that affects more than 2 million people in the US, and we still know virtually nothing about this disease at the molecular level. Wouldn't that stand out?

It certainly has to today's guest, Ron Davis, who is also a father searching for answers for his son. Ron has been the Director of the Stanford Genome Technology Center for decades. He collaborated on the first DNA microarray and made a major contribution to the Human Genome Project. For five years now, Ron has directed his comprehensive skill set in bioengineering--and his vast connections--to work on a cure for ME/CFS, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a disease which has ravished his son, Whitney Dafoe.

With no funding from the NIH so far (he says they're not good at starting things), Ron is working to characterize the disease at the molecular level. A new device developed at his center that he calls a "nano needle" could enable the first definitive diagnostic test for patients with CFS.

The history of this disease is of patients desperate with hope but always facing a major stigma. Many medical professionals are still not on board with diagnosing a patient with CFS. Ron says this stigma and lack of interest by the research community has created a big chance.

“This is a tremendous opportunity. Here’s a major disease which at the molecular level you don’t know anything about. This has got to be the last disease like this."

Find an extensive recent written interview with Ron here.

Training the Next Generation of Bioinformaticians: Russ Altman, Stanford


Russ Altman, Dept Chair, Bioengineering, Stanford University

Bio and Contact Info

Listen (5:32) A bioinformatician bottleneck?

Listen (4:19) Does the engineer or coder have enough basic biology?

Listen (5:04) Have we been overly reductionist?

Listen (5:16) Beautiful but useless algorithms

Listen (4:13) New breakthroughs in natural language processing

Listen (3:39) A new regulatory science

For our last episode in the series, The Bioinformatician Bottleneck, we turned to someone who has not only done lots of bioinformatics projects (he's been lead investigator for the PharmGKB Knowledgebase) but also one who is training the next generation of bioinformaticians. Russ Altman is Director of the Biomedical Informatics program at Stanford. He's also an entertaining speaker who's comfortable with an enormous range of topics.

It's been some time since we had Russ to the program, so we had some catching up to do. What are his thoughts on the recent philosophy of science topics we've been discussing? Are the new biologists becoming mere technicians? What is meant by open data? Etc. He warns of being too black and white when it comes to reductionism or antireductionism. And agrees that the new biologist needs quite a bit of informatics training. But he's not worried that all bioinformaticians have to be better biologists, saying that there's a whole range of jobs out there.

What's Russ excited about in 2014? The increased ability to do natural language processing, he says.

"We have 25 million published abstracts that are freely available. So that's a lot of text. Increasingly we're having access to the full text and figures. I think we're near the point where we'll have an amazing capability to do very high fidelity interpretation of what's being said in these articles," he says in today's interview.

Russ finishes up by talking about a new West Coast FDA center in which he's involved. The center is focused on a program for a new emerging regulatory science, which he defines as the science needed to make good regulatory decisions.

"This area of regulatory science," he says, "has great opportunity to accelerate drug development and drug discovery."

I saw Russ at Stanford's Big Data conference after our interview and asked him at what age he decided against Hollywood and for going into a life of academia and science.

"Who says I did?" he retorted without hesitation.

Podcast brought to you by: Roswell Park Cancer Insititute, dedicated to understanding, preventing and curing cancer for over 115 years.

UCSC Up To More than Bioinformatics

UC Santa Cruz is well know in our field for their part in the Human Genome Project.  Led by David Haussler, the bioinformatics group there released the first working draft of the human genome sequence on the web, leading shortly to the UCSC Genome Browser, an essential open resource for biomedical science.  This was followed up last year by the launch of the  Cancer Genomics Hub (CGHub), a large-scale data repository for the National Cancer Institute. 

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