KU establishes $11 million biomedical center to advance women’s health using big data

Photo of researchers involved in the NIH award to KU

Pictured from left: Amber Watts, Liz Coleman, Jarron Saint Onge, Donna Ginther, Meredith Hartley, Beth Benfield and Heather Desaire. (Not pictured: Rebecca Whelan and Misty Heggeness.) Credit: Ann Smith

LAWRENCE — A new $11.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health will establish a multidisciplinary biomedical center at the University of Kansas to research big data’s potential to improve women’s health. 

The award is a component of the NIH Institutional Development Award Program and will be KU’s fifth Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) since the program’s inception in the 1990s.

“This is part of NIH's EPSCoR effort to enhance research in states like Kansas that historically have received a smaller portion of the pie,” said principal investigator Heather Desaire, Dean's Professor and Keith D. Wilner Chair in Chemistry at KU, who will serve as the center’s director. “We’re going to leverage big data to improve women's health. All of the research projects within the center will have a component of using large data sets or machine learning, and an application area related to women's health in some way — especially looking at health disparities that women incur. We’re talking about diseases like ovarian cancer, breast cancer, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease, which are more prevalent in women.”

By funding research projects, supporting faculty, improving lab facilities and boosting collaboration across scholarly fields, the center will harness complex datasets to tackle biomedical issues vital to women. The leading collaborators at KU come from a range of laboratory sciences as well as behavioral and social sciences.  

Five KU faculty will lead biomedical research projects, each of which could serve as a springboard to further funding opportunities. The research project leaders are Rebecca Whelan, associate professor of chemistry; Meredith Hartley, assistant professor of chemistry; Amber Watts, associate professor of psychology; Jarron Saint Onge, professor of sociology and population health; and Misty Heggeness, associate professor of public affairs & administration and associate research scientist at KU’s Institute for Policy & Social Research.

Additionally, the new grant will support three new tenure-track faculty hires at KU in the departments of Chemistry, Psychology and Sociology, whose research will focus on the intersection of big data and biomedical research benefiting women. A Research-Engaged Faculty Fellows Program also will be established under the grant.

The new center at KU will expand education and training of students in handling complex datasets as well.

“Psychology is leading the charge in developing a data science curriculum at KU,” Desaire said. “They’re very tied into this grant, and that will be an area where there will be synergy in teaching and training students.” 

Moreover, the Kansas Board of Regents has awarded the new center matching funds earmarked toward training students in data science, boosting the state’s workforce in the burgeoning field.

The researchers, students and faculty involved will be backed by a new Biomedical Datasets and Services Core Lab at KU supported under the NIH award that will serve other research efforts at KU and even private industry, too.

“This core lab is run by Donna Ginther (Roy A. Roberts and Regents Distinguished Professor of Economics at KU) and will focus on biomedical data sets, which is a new expansion of the scope of her center’s past work,” Desaire said. 

The Datasets and Services core will be run under the umbrella of the Institute for Policy & Social Research, a center Ginther heads at KU.

“The five project leaders will be served by the datasets core, as will anybody in the entire KU community who needs statistics support, dataset analysis or help finding a dataset relevant to a project they are pursuing,” Desaire added. 

The multimillion-dollar economic boost to Kansas through direct spending and new research positions is just one way the center will benefit the region. Planned research also will draw data from regional communities that often find themselves overlooked in biomedical studies. For instance, according to Desaire, most clinical trials operate out of city hospitals, leaving women living in rural communities under-researched.

“If you live out in western Kansas, the chances of you participating in those types of things are smaller,” said the KU researcher. “Sometimes it’s a matter of having somebody specifically ask the question, ‘How do you know these health factors impact somebody's overall health in rural settings versus urban settings — where we have most of the data from?'” 

Heggeness, one of the project leaders, will focus on telemedicine, another growing means to provide health care to people in less populated areas of the state. 

“The telemedicine project is specifically addressing rural health issues that are relevant to Kansas,” Desaire said.

The final objective of the Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence program is to train and retain highly qualified faculty so that even beyond the COBRE funding, new ideas can be launched and developed in states like Kansas. 

“My very first grant funding was a research project on Bob Hanzlik’s COBRE grant here at KU in 2002,“ Desaire said. “The program was invaluable in my development as a grant-funded scientist.  Now, over 20 years later, it’s exciting to get to pay it forward and help other faculty accelerate their research.”