By Bill Bruton
Published April 4, 2023
Ram Samudrala, PhD, professor in the Department of Biomedical Informatics and chief of its Division of Bioinformatics, and Zackary M. Falls, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Informatics, have been involved in research that has resulted in four recent successful funding projects — three grants and a challenge.
“These were the last four we did last fall, and every one was successful. One grant would have been nice, but getting them all in a row and not getting a rejection is amazing,” Samudrala says. “It’s very common to get a rejection when you write a proposal, so to get four in a row is great.”
“Having this many projects successfully funded is incredibly satisfying and exciting in so many ways,” Falls says. “It is always a great feeling to know that your work is important enough that it can be funded. But more importantly, the best part of receiving these grants and doing the research is the opportunity to do something that can improve other people’s lives, be it training the next generation of brilliant and diverse students, discovering a novel treatment for a disease that is cheaper, safer and more effective, or developing a software that will aid clinicians in their prescribing practices.”
They are part of a $1 million National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) grant for developing a computational approach — CANDO (Computational Analysis of Novel Drug Opportunities) — to make drug discovery faster and less expensive while also being safe and effective. Samudrala is the primary investigator and Falls is the co-investigator. They put together the application for funding on the project with Matthew Jones, PhD, interim director of the Center for Computational Research (CCR).
“In order to accomplish this goal, we need more computational power, and that is exactly what the NIST grant will enable us to do — buy more computing power for the CCR,” Falls says.
“This was an interesting grant in that it arose out of a solicitation to New York Senator Charles E. Schumer’s office and ended up showing up as a line item on the 117th Congressional budget,” Samudrala adds.
Other successful grants they are involved in are from the National Institutes of Health — an R25 grant from the National Library of Medicine (NLM) and a K01 grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
“The NLM R25 is a short-term training program for undergraduates and master’s students, primarily those students from underrepresented groups,” Falls says. “The NLM R25 program is amazing because it provides the students an opportunity to learn more about biomedical informatics and data science and engage in research with leaders in the field.”
“By training these students — especially so early in their careers — they may find new career paths that they never thought possible and, at the same time, we are expanding the diversity of our field with trainees from all different backgrounds with unique perspectives that will enable the fields of biomedical informatics and data science to flourish,” Falls adds.
Samudrala and Peter L. Elkin, MD, professor and chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics, are primary investigators on the NLM R25 grant — which is worth $133,000 a year for a five-year period — while Falls is a co-investigator. Falls says the entire biomedical informatics department will participate in the yearly program as faculty mentors.
Falls is primary investigator on the K01 grant.
“The K01 is a Mentored Career Development Award meant to provide me financial support and additional training toward becoming an independent researcher,” Falls says.
Falls says the research objective for the grant — with the guidance of his mentors — is to create a bioinformatics and clinical informatics driven model that will predict drug-drug interactions and the corresponding severe adverse drug reactions that can occur when an individual is on numerous drugs simultaneously.
“This is a very important field of research because many patients — especially the elderly population and patients living with substance use disorders — are far more likely to be on five or more prescription drugs, which can lead to severe adverse drug reactions,” Falls says. “If we can identify those interactions, we can mitigate adverse reactions and increase patient safety.”
Other collaborators include A. Erdem Sariyuce, assistant professor of computer science and engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Kai Wang, PhD, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
“They are all instrumental in both the research and helping me develop skills to become a truly independent researcher,” Falls says.
Falls, Samudrala and Li were also among a team of researchers that captured the prestigious National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) ASPIRE (A Specialized Platform for Innovative Research Exploration) Reduction-to-Practice Challenge, beating out hundreds of teams in earning $1.32 million in funding. Their research project focuses on helping to solve the opioid crisis in the U.S.