Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center computational biologist Dr. Rob Bradley was recently named the new McIlwain Family Endowed Chair in Data Science. Funding provided by the honor will support Bradley’s use of computational methods to seek molecular patterns in large datasets that shed light on cancer biology and help point the way toward new therapies for cancer and related diseases.
“Great researchers like Dr. Rob Bradley understand that both new and existing data can be mined through data science to discover insights faster than ever,” said Matt McIlwain, the immediate past chair of the Fred Hutch board of trustees. "Rob and his teams are taking a very modern approach to combining strategic thinking, machine learning and new data techniques like CRISPR knockouts to rapidly identify genes and proteins impacting cancer causes and cures."
The chair was originally established by Matt, Carol, Madison, Matthew and Mason McIlwain to continue the momentum of the unique initiative established by Fred Hutch’s board of trustees to match endowed faculty chairs, and in honor of family members who have experienced cancer. The family’s investment in data science and related opportunities in computing, machine learning and biological science reflects their deep commitment to developing Seattle’s leadership in curative approaches to cancer through creative collaboration and emerging scientific fields.
“I'm extremely grateful and honored to be appointed to the McIlwain Family Chair,” said Bradley, who was recently promoted to full professor. “I’m excited, not just because the chair will provide new funding for our research, but also because it will enable us to pursue high-risk, high-reward ideas that are challenging to support with traditional funding mechanisms. The chair will allow my team to continue to enter new areas of discovery.”
Mutations in our DNA can lead to changes in cellular behavior, often by changing the function of the proteins that our genes encode. But there are a few intermediate steps between genes and proteins where changes can also have major health effects. Bradley studies a step known as RNA processing. RNA is a genetic molecule that carries information from our genes to the molecular factories in our cells that churn out proteins. We only have two copies of each gene but need many copies of each protein. By making many copies of a specific RNA, our cells ensure that each protein-making factory has its own set of instructions for that protein.
But it takes many complex processing steps to produce RNA that can be correctly “read” by our cells’ protein-building factories. Bradley studies how malfunctions in RNA processing can lead to cancer and genetic diseases.
“One thing that's become clear over the last ten years is that RNA processing is not just a bit player in cancer,” Bradley said. “Instead, it can be the primary driver of a lot of cancers. And in every respect — from why the cancer originally initiates, to the way it progresses, to why it can become resistant to therapy.”
Though scientists had suspected RNA processing played a role in disease, it wasn’t until they were able to bring together tissue samples and molecular data from many, many patients that their suspicions were confirmed. The size of datasets that Bradley and others work to untangle are growing in leaps and bounds: Having started with data from a group of less than 20 patients, Bradley now looks at hundreds of thousands of molecules in samples collected from thousands of patients.
Only with advanced computation can scientists make sense of such data. Bradley’s team uses sophisticated computational methods and statistical approaches to detect molecular patterns underlying cancer and genetic diseases, including a type of muscular dystrophy. They bring together information from disparate sources, using patient tumor samples, genetically engineered mouse models and cell lines to identify patterns and confirm potential genetic links to disease. Once confirmed, these genetic ties could become the targets of future therapies.
“It's an amazing opportunity. But the scale of data is so large that it presents new challenges,” Bradley said. The McIlwain Family Chair will help him devise new ways to tackle those challenges.
The board of trustees initiative to match endowed faculty chairs concluded on June 30. Thirty-five faculty members now hold Fred Hutch endowed chairs.
Sabrina Richards, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a Ph.D. in immunology from the University of Washington, an M.A. in journalism and an advanced certificate from the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.