Media Releases

Two U of T projects receive $1 million each for bioinformatics research

April 25, 2013

TORONTO, ON – Two U of T research projects have won $1 mil­lion each in fund­ing from the Gov­ern­ment of Cana­da through Genome Cana­da and the Ontario Genomics Insti­tute.  The Genome Cana­da 2012 Bioin­for­mat­ics and Com­pu­ta­tion­al Biol­o­gy com­pe­ti­tion, a part­ner­ship with the Cana­di­an Insti­tutes of Health Research, sup­ports the devel­op­ment of the next gen­er­a­tion of tools to deal with the large influx of data pro­duced by today’s genomics tech­nolo­gies.

“Bioin­for­mat­ics becomes increas­ing­ly impor­tant as researchers are able to gen­er­ate more and more data,” said Judith Chad­wick, U of T’s Assis­tant Vice-Pres­i­dent, Research and Inno­va­tion.

“Tools that help us make sense of these data are the keys to bet­ter health and qual­i­ty of life. On behalf of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, thanks to Genome Cana­da for these awards—and to the Ontario Genomics Insti­tute for facil­i­tat­ing them. And con­grat­u­la­tions to the researchers on these rich­ly-deserved awards.”

Pro­fes­sors Michael Brud­no and Gary Bad­er received $998,546 to devel­op soft­ware that will help doc­tors use a patient’s genome to search for infor­ma­tion about his or her risk of devel­op­ing a dis­ease.

“Genome sequenc­ing is evolv­ing from being a research project to a rou­tine med­ical test,” says Brud­no. He and Bad­er want to help clin­i­cians inter­pret these tests to bet­ter tar­get med­ical treat­ment.

The data gen­er­at­ed when a human genome is sequenced are in the ter­abyte range—much more than any human could make sense of. (A ter­abyte of paper stacked would make a 66,000-mile tow­er.) The team’s soft­ware will help dis­til the data down to a few megabypes of infor­ma­tion that is actu­al­ly use­ful. (A megabyte is rough­ly equiv­a­lent to 500 pages of text.)

“Often it is hard to fig­ure out the exact type of dis­or­der a patient has,” says Brud­no. “Two dis­or­ders that look the same may have dif­fer­ent genet­ic causes—and need dif­fer­ent cours­es of treat­ment.” Sequenc­ing a patient’s genome allows for pre­cise­ly tar­get­ed treat­ment.

The soft­ware can also be used to help healthy patients under­stand their risk of devel­op­ing genet­ic dis­eases like can­cer, dia­betes and Alzheimer’s.

The fund­ing, half of which comes from Genome Cana­da, and half from the Hos­pi­tal for Sick Chil­dren (Sick­Kids), will allow the researchers to test and refine their soft­ware in col­lab­o­ra­tion doc­tors treat­ing patients at Sick­Kids. Brud­no notes that a pre­vi­ous grant from the Ontario Genomics Insti­tute was instru­men­tal in get­ting the project start­ed.

Brud­no is affil­i­at­ed with the Depart­ment of  Com­put­er Sci­ence, the Don­nel­ly Cen­tre for Cel­lu­lar and Bimol­e­c­u­lar Research, the Bant­i­ng and Best Depart­ment of Med­ical Research and the Hos­pi­tal for Sick Chil­dren, where he is the direc­tor of the Cen­tre for Com­pu­ta­tion­al Med­i­cine. Bad­er is affil­i­at­ed with the Bant­i­ng and Best Depart­ment of Med­ical Research, the Don­nel­ly Cen­tre for Cel­lu­lar and Bimol­e­c­u­lar Research, the Depart­ment of Com­put­er Sci­ence, the Depart­ment of Mol­e­c­u­lar Genet­ics and the Samuel Lunen­feld Research Insti­tute at Mount Sinai Hos­pi­tal.

Pro­fes­sors Nicholas Provart of the Depart­ment of Cell & Sys­tems Biol­o­gy and the Cen­tre for the Analy­sis of Genome Evo­lu­tion and Func­tion and Stephen Wright of the Depart­ment of Ecol­o­gy & Evo­lu­tion­ary Biol­o­gy and the Cen­tre for the Analy­sis of Genome Evo­lu­tion and Func­tion received $1 mil­lion to devel­op visu­al­iza­tion tools and appli­ca­tions to accel­er­ate advances in plant biol­o­gy, which are impor­tant for feed­ing, hous­ing, cloth­ing and pro­vid­ing ener­gy to the world’s grow­ing pop­u­la­tion.

Recent advances in DNA sequenc­ing and oth­er high through­put tech­nolo­gies have gen­er­at­ed a del­uge of infor­ma­tion about Ara­bidop­sis thaliana, an organ­ism that biol­o­gists use as a mod­el plant species—“the fruit fly of plants,” says Provart.

Inter­pret­ing and visu­al­iz­ing the data, Provart says, “can be over­whelm­ing for biol­o­gists, who aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly skilled in the art of writ­ing com­put­er code.”

Cur­rent­ly, plant biol­o­gists in search of genet­ic data have to vis­it mul­ti­ple sources and the result is frag­men­ta­tion and inefficiency—and use­ful data often ends up lan­guish­ing.

He and Wright will par­tic­i­pate in the devel­op­ment of inter­na­tion­al por­tal that will make exist­ing data avail­able to sci­en­tists in a desk­top inter­face where they can pick and choose the data they want with the click of a mouse. The por­tal will help plant biol­o­gists advance a vari­ety of research ques­tions, many of which will be essen­tial to sup­port­ing the world’s pop­u­la­tion, which is expect­ed to reach nine bil­lion by 2050.

Half the fund­ing for Provart and Wright’s project will come from Genome Cana­da, the oth­er half from the Moore Foun­da­tion and oth­er sources.


For more infor­ma­tion, con­tact:

Jen­ny Hall
Senior Research Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Offi­cer
Vice Pres­i­dent Research
Tel: 416–946-3643