UAB Magazine Online Features
Health Informatics Advances Research and Health Care
By Tara Hulen
What if a cure for cancer already exists, but it is buried on a hard drive in a research lab?
Every year, drug companies test untold thousands of new compounds, clinicians turn up intriguing clues from patient tests, and investigators reveal novel targets to attack disease. “But that data needs to be analyzed, and the quantity of it is overwhelming,” says Jonas Almeida, Ph.D., director of UAB’s new Division of Informatics. The division was formed in 2011 to develop new methods to extract meaning from research findings—and give clinicians access to new tools for care.
In July 2012, the UAB team launched a first-of-its-kind medical app known as ImageJS. The program runs in an ordinary Internet browser, which means that it can be used anywhere and won’t be blocked by hospital security software. "We created a new kind of computational tool that promises to make patient data more useful where it's collected,” Almeida says. (Learn more about ImageJS in this story from UAB News and download a copy in the Google Chrome Web Store.)
In its first iteration, ImageJS allows pathologists to drag laboratory slides into the browser to get a quick analysis of cancer cell growth. New modules are already in the works that let the software tackle other tasks, and Almeida says he hopes clinicians will adapt the code to expand its capabilities still further. The lessons learned developing this app have since inspired an ongoing initiative in the Division of Informatics for data mining of the Cancer Genome Atlas, he adds. This NIH public repository of patient and tumor data has generated over 300,000 data files, a number that doubles approximately every seven months.
UAB Researchers Say Diet Plays a Key Role
By Matt Windsor
Investigators at UAB are pursuing several exciting new ways to treat depression by targeting the neurotransmitter glutamate. (See more in part 1 of this story here.) But there is a limit to what medicines can do, cautions Richard Shelton, M.D., professor and vice chair of research in the UAB Department of Psychiatry and director of UAB’s new Mood Disorders Program. “I don’t think we can just ‘drug all our problems away,’” he says. “Another very exciting element in our research program is a search for preventive treatments.”
Obesity and Depression
Food is a major factor. “Diet-associated obesity is a key risk factor for becoming depressed,” Shelton says, “but not for the reason that most people assume. Interestingly, it does not appear to be related to how people feel about how they look. Even in cultures where extra weight is not a big deal, obesity is still associated with depression.”
In fact, obesity itself may not be the prime factor. “It seems that it’s not as much about the weight you gain as what you eat,” Shelton says. “Abdominal obesity is certainly associated with a higher risk of depression, but the balance of fatty acids in the diet seems to be even more important.” Countries that have a very high content of omega 3-rich fish in their diets have very low rates of depression, Shelton explains. In countries where people eat a lot of omega-6 fatty acids in red meat and fried foods, like the United States, depression is much more prevalent.
UAB Researchers Targeting New Ways to Define, Treat the Disease
By Matt Windsor
On September 12, 2008, bestselling author David Foster Wallace, whose 1996 novel Infinite Jest was considered one of the great works of the late 20th century, hanged himself in his California home. Wallace’s father told the New York Times that the 46-year-old writer had been severely depressed for a number of months. For 20 years, Wallace had been taking medication to control his depression, which had allowed him to be productive, his father said. But side effects had led him to wean himself from the medication in June 2007. The depression returned, and after trying several other treatments, including electroconvulsive therapy, Wallace resumed taking his initial medication, only to find that it was no longer effective. “He just couldn’t stand it anymore,” his father told the Times.
Alumnus Helps Start-Ups Find Success
By Charles Buchanan
Look around, right now. Could the person sitting next to you have the idea for the next Facebook or Amazon inside his or her head? Matt Wright’s mission is to unlock those ideas and help potential entrepreneurs create vibrant new companies.
After graduating from the UAB School of Business in 2001 with a finance degree, Wright worked his way up the banking ladder, working on an equity trading desk and managing a hedge fund. Eventually he founded NuVault Financial, which specializes in management consulting and investment banking. “I advise small companies on ways to grow their business through finance, efficiencies, or everyday operations,” says Wright. He also serves as associate director of the Birmingham Angel Network, an organization of business leaders who invest resources and expertise in local start-up companies.
“Globalization is here, and the only way for the United States to compete is through innovation,” Wright says. “Our goal in the Angel Network is to help these new companies on the front end, mentoring entrepreneurs who may not understand how to commercialize an idea. I tell them that starting a business and running a business are two different things. You’ve got to understand the differences in order to be successful.”