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Led by Timothy Elston, PhD, and Chuck Perou, PhD, the university-wide program aims to advance personalized medicine for patients.

Charles M. Perou, PhD
Charles M. Perou, PhD

The School of Medicine (SOM) will launch a new Computational Medicine Program, which aims to channel UNC’s strength in computational biology, the basic sciences and clinical research, towards the goal of making significant advances in clinical care for patients.

Co-directors of the new program are Timothy Elston, PhD, professor of pharmacology and director of the Curriculum in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, and Charles M. Perou, PhD, the May Goldman Shaw Distinguished Professor of Molecular Oncology at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, and professor of genetics, and of pathology and laboratory medicine.

“The Computational Medicine Program will enable teams of scientists from across the university to come together to address problems related to biomedical research,” Elston said. “Our ultimate goal is to generate models, combining many different types of data, that will enable us to predict outcomes of treatment, and design new ways of thinking about treating disease.”

“I think this is a significant, tangible advance towards ‘precision medicine’ or ‘personalized medicine,’” said Perou. “We’ve got great strengths here at UNC in computational biology, translational research and clinical research, and part of our mission here is to mesh these all together to make new advances for patients.”

Blossom Damania, PhD, Vice Dean for Research, said that “the time is right for UNC to capitalize on the great overlapping strengths we have built and the culture of collaboration we are very proud of at UNC and in the SOM. This is a strategic area for the SOM that dovetails with strong support for Precision Medicine initiatives and forming better connections with basic scientists and clinicians. Most importantly, we have identified ideal leadership in Drs. Elston and Perou that will ensure success for a very valuable program. Both Elston and Perou have vast expertise in developing computational models for understanding human disease and we are very fortunate to have both of them on the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill.”

The program will officially launch in early 2018. Recruitment efforts for up to five new faculty to join the program will start in the summer of 2018. By five years after launch, the program is expected to include approximately 30 members, consisting of existing UNC faculty and new hires.

New offices and lab space designed specifically for the program are currently under construction in the Mary Ellen Jones Building. Move-in is tentatively scheduled for the first quarter of 2019.

“This program will be based in the UNC SOM, but it will be a university-wide program,” Elston said. “It will involve researchers from across the university with the goal of engaging faculty with backgrounds in computer science, statistics, and applied math in biomedical research. It will be a very broad program built from all the strengths at UNC.”

Elston and Perou note that work in computational medicine has already been underway at UNC for many years. One example is a project involving Elston and Richard Boucher, MD, to develop models for understanding how pulmonary surface liquid is regulated, and what goes wrong in diseases like cystic fibrosis. Another is work that Perou’s lab has done on breast cancer, lung cancer and a number of other cancer types, where they have developed computational predictors of patient survival and response to therapy using genetic and genomic information coming from patient’s tumors.

A recent well-known example of computational medicine at UNC is Lineberger’s partnership with IBM Watson Health to accelerate DNA sequence analysis and inform personalized treatment options for patients. This work was featured on CBS’s “60 Minutes” in October 2016.

“We’re going to use existing teams, we’re going to build new teams, and we’re going to continue to collect vast amounts of data and bring data analysts, methods developers, clinical researchers and computational scientists all together so that we can speed up discovery and predictive model building,” Perou said.

“We’ve got the tools, we’ve got the data, and we’ve got many of the people, we just need a few more. I very much expect our program to hit the ground running, in large part because of the preparedness of UNC in general,” Perou added.