Dr. Martin McIntosh is helping to bring the incredible power of new technologies to bear on some of medical science’s most vexing problems.
McIntosh is head of the Herbold Computational Biology Program, which combines technical disciplines such as mathematics and computer sciences with lab-based research. By doing so, the program’s goal is to answer biological questions and use those discoveries to generate new breakthroughs in medical research.
Computational biologists perform a wide range of research, including conducting experiments that measure every gene or protein in a cell to visualizing what a single protein looks like so its properties can be better understood. The field is recently maturing, but McIntosh says there are good reasons to expect it will continue to grow in significance and play a prominent role in future advancements.
“It’s an exciting time. Frequently when you hear about breakthroughs reported in the news it derives from the kinds of things members of our program are doing,” McIntosh said.
An incredibly complex field, computational biology is almost equally diverse because it can include approaches from nearly any technical or scientific discipline. Computer scientists are doing work in areas customarily reserved for basic scientists and physicists are working on fundamental problems in genetics. Most researchers in the Hutchinson Center’s program have both wet-laboratory as well as computational components of their research. All researchers began their graduate education in computational disciplines then later entered biological research either after the start of their professional careers or during their graduate or post-graduate training. But the background and skillsets of computational biologist are changing, says Dr. McIntosh. “The younger faculty have a far greater degree of formal biological training, and begun at an earlier time of their careers, than the more senior faculty. “
McIntosh considers himself among the former. With a Ph.D. in statistics from Harvard University, McIntosh’s research gradually included more and more laboratory work beginning in the late 1990’s as profiling technologies became more accessible. All of his research grants include both computational and laboratory components. His work now is focused on identifying cancer-specific proteins and evaluating their potential for imaging-based diagnostics, for early detection biomarkers, or as targets for new therapies.
Although computational biology is still relatively new, McIntosh says lab-based scientists are already embracing it approaches. For example, Dr. Barry Stoddard, a member of the Basic Sciences Division, collaborated with Dr. Phil Bradley, an assistant member in computational biology, to identify the structures of proteins that one day could play a key role in fixing genetic mutations.
Prior to his appointment, McIntosh was appointed in the Center’s Molecular Diagnostics and Cancer Prevention programs. He says his exposure in those programs has given him a good foundation for how to build the Computational Biology Program.
Part of McIntosh’s philosophy is recruiting faculty who possess strong technical abilities but who also pursue their own biological research agendas as well. The philosophy distinguishes the Center’s Computational Biology Program from other institutes that may focus purely on advancing technology.
“We are all trained in a computationally oriented discipline, such as physics, mathematics, statistics or computer sciences, and have been highly successful in developing new experimental and computational approaches,” McIntosh said. “But our program’s researchers feel it is their primary mission to advance biological knowledge, and the technological component is the tool to do that.”