Big data for life

Australian and European researchers are finding the secrets of cancer and the immune system hiding in the numbers.

From his lab at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI), Irish-born researcher David Lynn is combining computational and big data analysis with experimental approaches to unpicking biological networks at the molecular level.

David leads a group of eight scientists who cover a lot of ground. One project revolves around understanding how gut bacteria affect the broader immune system: in particular, how giving antibiotics to infants can knock those bacteria around, which in turn can change how well the infants respond to vaccinations.

Another is the PRIMES project, an €11 million project funded by the European Commission that brings together several European institutions with David’s team and researchers from the University of Toronto in Canada to map the molecular interactions in colorectal cancer cells in exhaustive detail.

“There are about 4,000 different interactions,” David says. “We’ve seen how a common mutation can rewire the whole interaction network and make the cancer resist treatment.”

The third stream of David’s work involves building software tools.  “We make tools for systems biology,” he says, “with a focus on networks.” This software is used by more than 50,000 people around the world.

David joined SAHMRI in 2014 under the auspices of the EMBL Australia initiative.

EMBL, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, is one of the world’s top life sciences institutions. In 2008 Australia joined EMBL as the first non-European associate member country.

Under the EMBL scheme, top researchers receive up to nine years of funding for their group. That support—alongside SAHMRI’s high-grade facilities and the chance to join the EMBL Australia network—was what drew David to move to Adelaide with his wife and baby daughter in 2014.

“It was a very attractive proposition,” David says.

Banner image: A molecular interaction diagram. Credit: David Lynn