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Biomedical informatics forges new collaborations

August 20, 2007

Christopher Miller sees himself embarking on a promising path “to the forefront of medicine” in the 21st century. Deepa Madathil anticipates learning to use new technologies “to turn information into knowledge that will make health care better.”

Miller, who recently earned a degree in biology from ASU, and Madathil, who has been pursuing graduate studies in bioengineering at the university, are among the 11 members of the inaugural class of ASU’s new biomedical informatics degree program starting classes this semester.

The Department of Biomedical Informatics is in ASU’s School of Computing and Informatics, a part of the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering.
The first class of students will pursue master’s degrees in the new $29.6 million Arizona Biomedical Collaborative (ABC) 1 building adjacent to the downtown Phoenix Biomedical Campus.

ABC 1 is being shared by researchers in the new University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix in Partnership with Arizona State University, and faculty, students and researchers in the ASU’s Department of Biomedical Informatics. College of Medicine students will receive training in biomedical informatics from ASU faculty.

The program moves ASU into the vanguard of an emerging discipline that melds computer science and engineering, biology, information technology, cognition and decision-making research, mathematics, and health and social sciences – all aimed at improving the quality of health care.

ASU President Michael Crow emphasizes the potential for biomedical informatics to personalize medical care.

“The application of informatics and computing to bioscience will enable physicians and other health-care practitioners to replace ‘off-the-shelf’ medical treatments with courses of treatment custom-tailored for the individual patient,” Crow says.

Most biomedical informatics departments are located in medical and health schools. The integration of the ASU’s new department in a school of computing and informatics, co-located with the medical school at the biomedical campus, provides a unique environment for building a world-class program, says Sethuraman Panchanathan, founding director of the school.

“There is a convergence of information science, biological science, health and clinical sciences,” Panchanathan says. “People with backgrounds in the sciences and engineering, medicine, computing and informatics will come together to make personalized medicine a reality.”

Biomedical informatics applies such varied areas of expertise to improving the efficiency and effectiveness of medical research, education, testing, diagnosis and treatment. It’s seen as a critical to advancing “personalized” or “customized” medicine, in which care is tailored to specific health profiles of individual patients.

It also is emerging as an essential tool in federal and state government efforts to establish a national system for compiling and managing electronic medical records and the use of health information technology.

“It combines everything that interests me – computers and medicine and psychology and statistics,” says Alexander Dragotoniu, a senior in ASU’s Barrett Honors College who plans to enter the program after earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology. “This is going to have a big impact on the future of medicine. It’s something I want to be a part of.”

The first class of students will be entering a program that has been in planning and development for more than two years and already has achieved significant milestones, including:

• Research collaborations are being established with the UA College of Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Banner Health, Barrow Neurological Institute, the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, and more than 75 data partners of ASU’s Center for Health Information and Research.

• Along with Panchanathan, the department’s leadership includes new chair Bob Greenes, who is coming to ASU from Harvard Medical School, and vice chair Vimla Patel, who came to ASU from Columbia University. Edward Shortliffe, dean of the College of Medicine-Phoenix, also is a professor in the ASU biomedical informatics program.

• Patel, who also is director of medical education research for the College of Medicine-Phoenix, is transferring her Center for Decision Making and Cognition to ASU from Columbia University, and two new research centers under development – the Center for Clinical Informatics and the Center for Bioinformatics – will be part of the biomedical informatics program.

• Faculty members already hold 11 research grants totaling more than $3 million, with at least 28 proposals under consideration for additional grants totaling more than $20 million, from sources such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the National Human Genome Research Institute and the U.S. Department of Defense.

• A biomedical informatics doctoral program proposal has been submitted to the Arizona Board of Regents. Approval is expected in September, with classes to start in the fall of 2008.

The department also plans to develop a program designed to make ASU a national model for undergraduate degrees in the field.

The potential impact of biomedical informatics advances is dramatic. It’s estimated that nearly 100,000 Americans die annually in hospitals as a result of preventable medical errors. Expertise in biomedical informatics could reduce that number through innovations such as electronic medical records that allow physicians to quickly and easily access a patient’s prior medication history and avoid prescribing contra-indicated medications.

The bottom line, Panchanathan says, is that “a strong biomedical informatics program at ASU will help ensure that Arizonans have access to state-of-the art, efficient, safe, and low-cost clinical care.”

Adds Patel: “The ultimate goal is to improve patient care and human health by streamlining the process of applying the knowledge gained from basic biomedical and informatics research to clinical use in a cost-effective manner, with patient safety as the priority.”

Says David Young, ASU senior vice president for academic affairs: “The co-development of the Department of Biomedical Informatics and the College of Medicine at the Phoenix Biomedical Campus provides ASU with a unique opportunity to provide future physicians and other health care professionals with the comprehensive set of skills that are necessary for the practice of medicine in the 21st century.”

The program also should bolster Arizona’s knowledge-based economy. Industry studies indicate a growing multibillion-dollar market for bioinformatics products, more than 20,000 new jobs available nationally for experts in the field, and opportunities for new business start-ups to support the emerging industry.

For more information about ASU’s biomedical informatics program, visit the Web sites or