The Biomarker Discovery Workshop, supported by the Mayo Clinic and Illinois Alliance, brought together researchers from both institutions with a mission to expand upon existing biomarker identification.
Dr. George Vasmatzis, director of the Biomarker Discovery Program within the Center for Individualized Medicine at the Mayo Clinic, was one of the workshop organizers. The Mayo Clinic has been involved in biomarker discovery for several years, but Vasmatzis realizes the collaboration with Illinois can take things to a new, yet undiscovered level.
But what is a biomarker, and why would a person want to “discover” one? The term ‘biomarker’ is broad, comprising all measurable indicators of a biological state or condition. Biomarker examples include specific molecules or proteins, an imaging agent, or even a genome sequencing test that has the ability to inform physicians of a possible clinical dilemma. The identification of a biomarker gives physicians the ability to make more informed decisions concerning a patient’s care.
Biomarkers can be predictive, identifying a malignancy like cancer, or prognostic, indicating what the likely outcome for a patient will be with one therapeutic intervention or another. Biomarkers can even go so far as determining that a treatment is not effective.
“Individuals have individual disease. Each disease acts differently from one another. So that’s where biomarkers can tell you how you need to treat the individual patient,” says Vasmatzis “We think through the Mayo Clinic collaboration with Illinois that we can become leaders in biomarker discovery, utilizing multidisciplinary teams and bringing technologies and tools for those teams to discover new biomarkers and address important clinical questions.”
Illinois’ Rashid Bashir, the Abel Bliss Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Bioengineering, was also a workshop organizer, and he too recognizes the enormous potential inherent in a multidisciplinary collaboration with Mayo.
“Mayo is a top-ranked institution with world-class faculty and clinicians doing clinical research and healthcare delivery. Mayo can provide for a great opportunity for our faculty and students to do clinical translation work in bioengineering,” Bashir said.
Students and researchers, however, are not expected to be experts in every field that biomarker research encompasses.
“Students working in this area (biomarker discovery) can come in from a wide range of background—both computation and experimental. They can take classes in bioinformatics and computational medicine, genomic technologies, imaging, micro and nanotechnologies, and molecular and cellular biotechnologies,” Bashir said.
Vasmatzis, Bashir, and Illinois associate professor of chemistry Ryan Bailey, devised three “grand challenges” to encourage collaboration between the two institutions and use their varied backgrounds of expertise:
- Detection of Biomolecules from Body Fluids
- Molecular Imaging from Tissue Samples
- 3D Cancer Tumor Chip-Avatars
At the workshop, researchers were asked to submit funding proposals integrating Mayo’s clinical and Illinois’ engineering strengths. The research had to address the following four goals: collaboration between the institutions, discovery and validation of new biomarkers, facilitating the development of new clinical tests, and the translation and commercialization of new technologies.
Brendan Harley, assistant professor in chemical and biomolecular engineering, attended the workshop and is working on two of the four projects (see sidebar) that were ultimately funded through the workshop.
“The workshop gave me a much broader sense of the types of questions that are of direct clinical relevance. While I already knew about a number of collaborative opportunities, getting the scope of how the research may transfer to impact patients was really important,” Harley said.
That future impact for patient populations could be massive. “I think the potential in biomarkers is much bigger than what we can see or even imagine, especially when we develop this participation with Illinois in such a way as to quickly translate discoveries and implement new technologies,” Vasmatzis said.