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Department of Biomedical Informatics and Data Science

The University of Alabama System Board of Trustees approved the creation of the UAB Systems Pharmacology Artificial Intelligence (AI) Research Center (SPARC). SPARC, in partnership with the Heersink School of Medicine (HSOM) and the Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences (CCTS), will advance the use of AI, systems biology, and quantitative pharmacology in drug discovery through research innovation and interdisciplinary collaborations.
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Recent advancements in technology such as gene editing, cancer immunotherapy, click chemistry, RNA therapeutics, cell-based therapy, and artificial intelligence (AI) have facilitated a growing interest in computational approaches in drug discovery.

The center will focus on developing new AI-based approaches in informatics, data science, and clinical trials across multiple fields, including genomics, precision health, and medicine, while accelerating drug discoveries to address various clinical conditions.

SPARC’s inaugural director will be Jake Chen, Ph.D., Professor of Genetics, Computer Science, and Biomedical Engineering and the current Chief Bioinformatics Officer of the Department of Biomedical Informatics and Data Science (DBIDS). Dr. Chen is a distinguished member of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), and elected fellow of the American College of Medical Informatics (ACMI), American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA), and American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE).

In the past 15 years, Dr. Chen has co-founded several biotechnological startups in precision medicine and systems biology, providing services to the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.

As a transdisciplinary research center, SPARC will build on strong relationships established, as Informatics will transition into a department in January 2024. SPARC will partner in the recruitment of new academic talent, in an attempt to help bridge the gap between genomic and clinical big data and emerging therapeutic development analytics.

SPARC will drive scientific innovation in AI techniques to accelerate the identification and development of new drugs, leading to better patient outcomes and reduced costs for drug development. “SPARC will connect researchers to integrated data resources and expertise, drawing on institutional efforts in informatics, genomics, precision medicine, and translational science,” said Robert Kimberly, Director of the CCTS. “It will catalyze discoveries that will transform therapeutic development and bring more treatments to more people faster.”

“It’s exciting to see the AI ecosystem in Birmingham growing,” said Sixue Zhang, Ph.D., Head of Computer Aided Drug Design at Southern Research. “Hopefully, this center can advance the fundamental research of AI and invent new AI algorithms that address the limitation of current AI algorithms. SPARC could provide an excellent platform to coordinate effort on big AI projects beyond the resource of one single team.”

“The placement of SPARC within the newly established Department of Biomedical Informatics and Data Science is timely and appropriate,” said James Cimino, MD, Chair of the Department of the Biomedical Informatics and Data Science (DBIDS).

“SPARC researchers will expand the Department’s domain of inquiry, while recruitment of new faculty to the Department will complement SPARC research by providing a breadth of expertise in areas such as clinical informatics, implementation science, and evaluation.”

SPARC will be physically co-located with the new Biomedical Informatics and Data Science Department in Tinsley Harrison Tower during its initial year.  The Department and Center will later move to the Altec/Styslinger Genomic Medicine and Data Sciences building, where they will also be physically adjacent to the CCTS, the Heersink Institute for Biomedical Innovation, and the Precision Medicine Institute, further elevating the potential for scientific synergies at UAB.