Computer engineers in the life sciences: how technological advances are increasing demand

The advancement of technology in medical research is not only beneficial for disease prevention, it also creates new jobs to support these technological advances. As more and more medical databases are launched, more people will be needed to manage them, even if they have no medical background.

These new roles will help populate genetic databases, accelerate research cycles, and increase focus on diseases that have traditionally been understudied. And with this progress comes an increased demand for professionals with a background in technology, especially computer engineers, to help make it all happen.

M2Gen’s ORIEN advances technology in cancer research

Created in 2006 from the Moffitt Cancer Center, M2Gen launched the Oncology Research Information Exchange Network (ORIEN), a database to accelerate cancer research. An opt-in, anonymized database, the network aims to accelerate cancer research through an alliance with nearly 20 of the top cancer centers in the United States.

Dr. Oliver Hampton, Vice President of Bioinformatics and Biostatistics at M2Gen, explained how the system works.

“(Each institution) uses its own institutional observational mechanisms to track cancer patients in terms of treatment outcomes, which facilitates internal and external collaborative research,” Hampton said. “One of the cool things about this network is that it’s self-managed, but it shares a philosophy of shared collaboration and shared value. »

The main purpose of the database is to advance cancer research among traditionally marginalized groups. Through the collaborative effort of its 18 participating centers, ORIEN is able to create datasets that represent the patients most in need of new therapies.

“We can observe and track patients with this protocol,” Hampton explained. “We are gaining insights into patients who have not succeeded with the current standard of care, and we are producing targeted datasets for early development that are specific to these at-risk patients.”

Patients must register and give consent before their information and data is entered into the system. This could be the most crucial aspect in developing the ORIEN system and helping it achieve its goals. “The patient can withdraw their consent at any time and eliminate their data from the current system. And so that’s the real power, the commitment, and the real difference that M2Gen delivers in terms of our observing protocol,” Hampton said.

The database and all the information it contains are accessible by all ORIEN’s partner healthcare centres. With so many patient profiles available at the fingertips of researchers nationwide, it is hoped that ORIEN will shorten diagnostic and treatment times and also accelerate cancer research.

The M2Gen database has also added socio-economic benefits. By leveraging patient data from all walks of life, ORIEN is able to improve studies of cancers that have not only been often overlooked, but often disproportionately affect people of color. In this way, technology is used to help democratize healthcare.

“One of our major memberships is at Moorehouse, a traditionally African-American educational institution,” Hampton says. “We have internships at USC in Los Angeles that have specific ties to the LA County hospital system as well as the University of New Mexico and Albuquerque University in Oklahoma. USC and LA traditionally cover Latin American populations, and the third, Oklahoma, generally covers tribal nations that are severely underrepresented in I would say any medical field, so that’s extremely positive. Now, patients know they have the choice to be part of this network.

Data collected by ORIEN from these institutions may then be used by other ORIEN members throughout the United States. This means that regions that may have previously lacked data on marginalized groups can now accelerate research into several different cancers.

Growing demand for computer engineers

The launch of ORIEN also generated the need for support from computer engineers. Because medical professionals aren’t always computer tech-savvy, Hampton and M2Gen sought help from a third-party source.

“Part of our investment that took place in April 2021 was a partnership with Microsoft. And one of the things that has come out of this partnership is the technical transitions and the evolutions in the business background that are happening today,” Hampton said.

Support was essential to the development of technology that would power the system and protect patient privacy. With the help of IT developers, systems were created to manage data sharing and security, as well as ensure privacy across ORIEN’s 18 partner facilities.

“When you start talking about molecular data, DNA sequence in RNA sequencing, results, recalculation, all kinds of queries that can be made and algorithms that can be applied…[these are] all the digital analytics that we didn’t even think of today,” Hampton explained.

With 20,000 patients and three petabytes of data (or 3,000 terabytes), ORIEN needs skilled IT engineers to keep the database running smoothly.

“The problem we faced was how to create collaborative research platforms that allow people to interact with the data, bring their own analysis to the data, and bring their own datasets to complete the research. analysis to even increase the power beyond what we’re trying to do in the long term,” Hampton said.

Ultimately, Hampton said, the goal is to make the study of cancer treatment a data-driven enterprise.

“We are trying to figure out how we can take advantage of big data analytics, big data science, and algorithmic components. We review advances in machine learning and AI to help provide insights to those developing new therapies. The goal is to use this information to help make key decisions.

How computer engineers can enter the field

All this requires more computer engineers in the medical field. For those looking to go that route, Hampton says go for it, but techs should also have a genuine interest in medical research.

Hampton says he was initially interested in both biology and astronomy, because “the most complex questions are either the intricacies of the cosmos or the intricacies of cellular communication”, and that curiosity is what drives him. pushed him in his career. Although no medical background is necessary to become a computer engineer in the medical world, a healthy curiosity about biology and medicine is important.

“Cancer is a genomic disease, and so we can understand the evolutionary context that has changed the programming of individual normal cells. We can figure out how to beat it,” Hampton says. “Think about this problem and think about the technology tools you need to apply today.”

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