BY SUZANNE OVEL
Madigan Army Medical Center
A collaboration between researchers at Madigan Army Medical Center and the University of Washington-Tacoma may help detect potentially dangerous ectopic pregnancies earlier.
Currently, ectopic pregnancies — in which fertilized eggs implant outside of the uterus in areas like fallopian tubes or ovaries — are generally detected six or seven weeks into the pregnancy. With precision medicine research, though, clinicians are using tissue and blood samples from volunteer patients to see if DNA, RNA, a messenger for DNA instructions, or protein molecules, which perform tasks for cell functions, may provide clues even earlier, said Dr. Gregory Chow, a staff faculty physician at Madigan’s Reproductive Endocrinology Infertility Clinic.
Chow said UW-Tacoma has the capability of handling these genomic signatures to help decipher which genes or proteins may best predict ectopic pregnancies.
“In addition to that, you get a lot of information from these types of tests … and so you need the appropriate people who have the right kind of background to interpret all of the information,” Chow said.
Partnering with an institution with the reputation of the University of Washington lets Madigan access not only outstanding resources but also work with people who are world-class in their fields, he said.
Dr. Ka Yee Yeung-Rhee, an associate professor with the Institute of Technology at UW-Tacoma, is one of these experts who will join in this research. Although Yeung-Rhee’s background is in computer science, since her doctorate days, she’s joined in research in bioinformatics — a diverse field that, as Madigan’s Dr. Raywin Huang explains, analyzes the results of clinical trials in order to tell a story of a disease and its characteristics, or even if a particular treatment may work.
As a computer science expert, Yeung-Rhee develops custom-built algorithms to analyze the masses of data from clinical trials. When she and her team are not directly collaborating with clinical trials like Madigan’s ectopic pregnancy research, they develop algorithms from research that is already published to suggest new hypotheses. However, in those cases the team won’t find out for quite a while if their work will later be used outside of the university, while with clinical trials they know they are directly and immediately impacting medicine, she said.
“Without the clinical side, we could come up with the best possible computational models and nothing would happen to the patients, because no models will be applied to a clinical setting unless it is actually developed with data from the lab. So for us, that is a huge deal; we are very, very excited,” said Yeung-Rhee of the partnership with Madigan.
This ectopic pregnancy study is just one of several areas of collaboration between Madigan and the University of Washington-Tacoma, which all began when Yeung-Rhee invited Col. Richard Burney, Madigan’s chief of the Department of Clinical Investigation, to speak to her students as an invited lecturer.
“That has been a fantastic springboard for a collaborative relationship,” Burney said.
Earlier in the year, this collegial relationship led to the co-development of a summer course on bioinformatics for undergraduate students at UW-Tacoma. Yeung-Rhee paired with Huang, a senior biostatistician at Madigan, as well as Dr. Ling-Hong Hung, a research scientist at the university, to develop and teach an orientation course to spark interest in the field amongst a wide range of undergrads.
The course specifically sought out underrepresented students to include ethnic minorities and first-generation college students. Huang’s background as a biostatistian, Yeung-Rhee’s expertise as a computer scientist and Hung’s biochemistry experience lent the course the same multidisciplinary mix found in the field itself.
“We all come together, but we all come from a different background, so we bring a different piece of the puzzle to the table,” said Yeung-Rhee, explaining that no single person or field has all of the tools needed to do bioinformatics. “Each of us might be trying to solve the same problem … but because our academic training is different, that’s what makes the research experience really rich.”
Seventeen students from undergraduate fields as varied as nursing, psychology and information technology took the three-week course; Yeung-Rhee said she hopes they learned not only about bioinformatics but also gained some networking in the field and consider engaging in academic research.
While the summer orientation program is already funded for next year, and the ectopic pregnancy study should take about a year itself, Burney hopes the university and Madigan will continue to find new ways to work together.
“My hope is that we expand on these initial successes with more collaborative enterprise between Madigan clinical investigators and the University of Washington-Tacoma faculty,” Burney said. “I think that would be an amazing next step to all of this.”