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BMI melds computer science, medicine

February 17, 2006

Arizona State University’s new Department of Biomedical Informatics was unveiled at an inaugural event on January 19. The ASU Biomedical Informatics Symposium 2006 brought national leaders in biomedical informatics to Scottsdale to lend their expertise, support and encouragement to the emerging ASU department.

The launch of the biomedical informatics department at ASU “comes at the right time for the field of informatics,” said Mark Musen, head of the Stanford University Medical Informatics laboratory and a leader in the field. Noting that the current state of the technology in informatics has sufficiently matured, Musen added, “all of the right pieces seem to be in place.”

ASU’s biomedical informatics department will advance research and education in the science and practice of biomedical informatics, a relatively new field the melds the huge amount of information in medical research, clinical practice and patient care with the power of computing, communications and informatics. Biomedical informatics promises, among other things, to advance our understanding of the human genome, make connections between disease states and genetic patterns in individuals, and help usher in the era of personalized medicine.

But realizing these goals will be challenging.

The symposium revealed that in almost every aspect in healthcare – nursing, research, clinical practice, and ethics – people are grappling with the issues raised by information and its accessibility. How do you use the massive amounts of information? How do you decipher the data? How do you apply your findings? How do you ethically handle the sensitivities of the information?

“Too much research today is generating data that cannot be used efficiently because of lack of standardization,” said George Poste, director of the Biodesign Institute at ASU during the symposium. “We need to transform the vast amounts of information we generate and employ them in their most useful way.”

The BMI department will rely on partnerships between academic researchers, clinical practitioners and regional healthcare providers to advance research and education in the science and practice of biomedical informatics. ASU’s working partners include premier research establishments like the Biodesign Institute and TGen, healthcare providers like Mayo Clinic, Banner Healthcare and Barrow Neurological Institute.

Academic partnerships include the new University of Arizona College of Medicine Phoenix program, ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, College of Nursing, School of Life Sciences, Center for Health Administration and Policy, and the Center for Law, Science and Technology. These partnerships will work to transform the field and provide novel educational and research opportunities for students pursuing careers in biomedical informatics.

“There is an increasing convergence of information sciences, biological sciences and clinical sciences,” said Sethuraman Panchanathan, interim director of the BMI department. “People with backgrounds in science, medicine and computing and informatics will come together to realize the vision of personalized medicine. Our goal is to be at the forefront of biomedical informatics with a focus on personalized medicine by leveraging the exciting partnerships inside and outside of ASU.”

Panchanathan added that the BMI department will focus on use-inspired research and become nationally recognized as a leader in biomedical informatics research, provide a truly interdisciplinary educational experience and train a new generation of physicians and healthcare providers facile in biomedical informatics.

He added that the BMI planning began with a legislative appropriation last year, and the department was approved by the Arizona Board of Regents in December. The BMI curriculum currently is in the approval process at ASU and Panchanathan expects courses and a concentration to be available soon. The master's and doctorate programs are slated to commence in Fall 2007 and 2008, respectively.

“Those of us involved in informatics look with some envy at the opportunities ASU has ahead of it,” said J. Robert Beck, vice president of technology at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

Biomedical informatics is a rapidly expanding field which brings together medical science and public health with the latest advances in computing, communications and informatics. It is increasingly looked upon as a powerful tool that will change the way medicine is practiced and revolutionize medical diagnosis and treatment.

For example, a person is tentatively diagnosed with pneumonia but doctors cannot identify the particular strain of the disease or rule out the possibility of valley fever. The initial treatments identified for pneumonia patients are generally effective, but in this case, fail to work. Eventually this person must be hospitalized, while physicians try one treatment after another, hoping to find a cure.

Biomedical informatics would enable the medical team to quickly and accurately determine the precise disease. The proper treatment can then be rapidly prescribed. Research in personalized medicine enabled by biomedical informatics holds the promise of treatments that can be prescribed to that individual not only based on that persons disease, but also that person’s genetic makeup and predisposition to specific medical conditions.

The approaches of personalized medicine and evidence-based health care will permit improved diagnosis and highly targeted treatments, which hold the key for improving health care and enhancing the quality of our lives.

Written by:
Skip Derra
(480) 965-4823