Inside the wondrous world of bioinformatics

09 Sep 2019
Inside the wondrous world of bioinformatics

As a not-for-profit charity organisation, SAHMRI relies on the generosity of trusts, foundations, government bodies and other groups and individuals to help fund its life-saving medical research that is improving the health of people throughout the world.

The James and Diana Ramsay Foundation is a prime example of the significant impact such generosity has – funding the establishment of SAHMRI’s Bioinformatics Core, led by Dr Jimmy Breen.

“So, what is bioinformatics?”, asks the inquisitive but science-illiterate chap sitting opposite Dr Jimmy Breen.

Well aware of his audience’s academic limitations and penchant for sport, Jimmy draws inspiration from the European summer of cycling which will soon crescendo at the Tour de France.

“It’s like making bikes for a cycling team,” he says.

“Bioinformatics sits outside or underneath or around much of the core research, providing what’s needed to make it the best research it can be.”

It’s an interesting analogy though not wholly informative. But to paraphrase the musings of a great philosopher, “It’s not what you are that matters, it’s what you do that defines you.*” And bioinformatics does a lot.

“Across research and clinical practice there’s an increasing focus on precision medicine – categorising diseases at the genetic level to design more targeted treatments,” Jimmy says.

“All that would be impossible without bioinformatics to interpret the huge amounts of data involved.”

So bioinformatics is data analysis?

Yes. But so much more.

“Ultimately, a tool marker is only as good as his tools. Bioinformaticians (BIs) have this curse where a researcher comes to us and says ‘here, I’ve produced this data, can you process it?’,” Jimmy says.

“By that stage it’s often too late. All the problems you’ll come up against could have easily been avoided if they’d just had a chat with you beforehand.”

And therein lies the compounding value of SAHMRI having its own Bioinformatics Core, made possible by the altruistic philanthropy of the James and Diana Ramsay Foundation.

“We’re there to help researchers through every stage of their projects rather than them having to engage an external consultant,” Jimmy says.

“Firstly, that builds knowledge within the institute. If you outsource the work, you outsource the lessons learned in the process of doing it.

“Secondly, involvement from start to finish increases the sophistication of your data collection as well as your analysis, which results show consistently leads to publication in journals of greater impact.

 “As well as that, often the framework you develop to gather and analyse data becomes a tool that other researchers around the world can use. That in turn leads to even more citations and a higher research output for the institute.”

 Jimmy pauses.

“I’m sounding like I’m selling steak knives … but wait … there’s more,” he continues.

Jimmy confides that he’s somewhat of a science-style matchmaker.

The very nature of his work takes him to every corner of the institution and beyond, meeting researchers from seemingly disparate disciplines and enabling him spot potential for cross-pollination of the inspired work they’re doing.

“So you’re SAHMRI’s Osher Gunsberg,” says his trash TV-watching inquisitor.

“More like Dexter,” he replies. “But that’s still a stretch.

 “A lot of people work on pretty similar things. Even if they might look at first glance to be wholly unrelated, they’re often addressing the same underlying problem. And two or more types of data is always better at solving a problem than one.”

Here again, the exponential value of bioinformatics is on show.

“These collaborations are increasingly being formalised in project proposals which gives SAHMRI’s researchers a better shot a securing grant funding,” Jimmy says.

“Funding is so competitive these days. With so many great researchers proposing great projects, the decision makers have to be picky. They want to see air-tight start-to-finish proposals with every angle considered.”

Wow! We can add grant guru and collaboration king (or queen) to the already established litany of BI brilliance! So BIs are pretty much the BOSS of research!?

“Yeah … nah,” Jimmy sighs.

“No matter how good a bike mechanic you are, you’ll never stand on the podium on the Champs Elysee.”


*Rachel Dawes to Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins