Inaugural Precision Medicine Conference Held at Duke

11/5/19 Pratt School of Engineering

Hosted by the Woo Center for Big Data and Precision Medicine, the new conference brought together leaders in data-driven approaches to improving health

Xiling Shen addresses the crowd at the inaugural Precision Medicine Conference
Inaugural Precision Medicine Conference Held at Duke

When the Sherry and John Woo Center for Big Data and Precision Medicine (DAP) was launched at Duke University in 2018, director Xiling Shen knew he wanted the center to convene innovators working in the emerging field of precision medicine––no matter where in the world they do that work—by brining top-notch researchers from multidisciplinary backgrounds, ranging from clinicians, biologists, engineers, and computer scientists.

This idea became a reality on October 24, when DAP hosted its first annual symposium on big data and precision health. Featuring presentations by leading researchers from universities and research institutions across the globe, the day-long symposium highlighted work spanning wearable technology, machine learning, new approaches to improve cancer therapies and ways to address ongoing health disparities.

“Our hope was to provide both researchers at Duke and visiting innovators a chance to hear and generate new ideas and create new collaborations, leading to scientific and technological breakthroughs in precision medicine and ultimately, to a healthier world,” said Shen.

“This was truly a fantastic event,” said Dr. Jenny Chang, the director of the Houston Methodist Cancer Center, who gave a presentation covering breast cancer research and enhancing response rates to cancer therapies. “The symposium topics transcended data science, biology, patient care outcomes and health disparities––it was a really great overview of important work in the field.”

The event brought together researchers from across Duke, with presentations from Vice President for Research Lawrence Carin, Department of Biomedical Engineering chair Ashutosh Chilkoti and professors Jessilyn Dunn and Charles Gersbach, and Duke Health physician-scientists Drs. Jatin Roper and Neil Surana.

Hans Clevers presents during the DAP symposium“It was fascinating to see the level of collaboration across Duke in relation to these different projects,” said Dr. Hans Clevers, director of the Hubrecht Institute for Developmental Biology and Stem Cell Research at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. “That’s not something you see everywhere, and these presentations showed a unique mix of the most modern technologies and approaches in health data and precision medicine.”  

The event was also packed with innovative guest speakers from far-flung locations, including Clevers, who delivered the keynote address on the use of organoids, or mini-organs, to better model human disease; Dr. Steven Lipkin, vice chair for research and director of the Cancer Genetics Clinic at Cornell University; Luis Saraiva, director of the Metabolism and Diabetes Program at Sidra Medicine in Doha, Qatar; and Jessie Tenenbaum, chief data officer at the NC Department of Health and Human Services.

Dr. Calvin Kuo, vice chair of research and leader of the Cancer Biology Program at Stanford University, delivered the symposium’s plenary lecture, describing his own work with organoids and personalized medicine.

“The symposium showed the really incredible diversity of extremely translational science in this field, and how we can start to bridge the gap to use precision medicine to improve patient care,” said Kuo. “It was an excellent event, and I was thrilled to be a part of it.”

Although most speakers hailed from academia, a lunch session also highlighted organizations that support innovative research in precision medicine. During his talk, Jonah Cool, director of the Human Cell Atlas of the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative and a Duke alum, discussed various collaborative projects and funding opportunities available through the initiative.

“I was really impressed with the diversity of speakers working at the intersection of precision medicine and health data,” said Cool. “It was also interesting to see people take a pragmatic and critical approach to data, which you don’t always see–such as the discussion in Dr.  Tenenbaum’s presentation regarding bias potential problems with data collection. It was a highly informative event.”

In addition to these presentations, the conference included talks and a poster session highlighting recent successes from DAP.  Students, post-doctoral fellows and other researchers from the center discussed various projects pertaining to the three focuses of DAP: artificial intelligence in medical imaging, health data science and precision medicine.   

“Duke is already at the forefront of bringing big data and precision medicine into clinical practice,” said Shen. “The Woo Center has given us the opportunity to transform health data into actionable health insights, and we were thrilled to share some of that work with our collaborators and attendees during the inaugural DAP symposium.”


The crowd chats and explores the posters during a break at the DAP symposium