September 2, 2020

New UW chief of biomedical informatics dives into data to push cancer research, care forward

Madison, Wis. — After nearly two decades in the field, Jomol Mathew, PhD, is more than used to hearing the question: just what exactly is biomedical informatics?

Fortunately, she’s got a good answer.

“It’s an interdisciplinary science of the collection, integration, analysis and interpretation of data” she said. “We’re generating knowledge out of data and ultimately helping to improve human health.”

While the collection of health data and information has always been part of medicine – think paper charts and lab reports – advancements in technology have made it easier to compile this information from various sources (including basic and clinical research, clinical care, and directly from patients themselves) and parse it out to identify trends. While making sense out of large swaths of information is a difficult task, it’s exactly what Mathew was hired to do.

Earlier this year, she accepted an offer to become the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health’s first ever chief of biomedical informatics. In this role, she oversees institutional biomedical informatics activities and is charged with finding new ways to enable UW researchers to translate data into meaningful interventions for patients.

This includes working closely with the UW Carbone Cancer Center. Having spent nearly a decade working for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, as well as contributing to the National Cancer Institute’s biomedical informatics projects, Mathew is well acquainted with the many aspects of cancer and has already identified areas that could benefit both research and patient care.

Take rare cancers as an example. “No one institution will have enough patients to study one of these cancers at clinical or molecular levels effectively, so that means we need to pool the data from many different places,” she said. “Biomedical informatics can be the medium to facilitate that.”

Another goal, Mathew says, is establishing informatics mechanisms to match patients to relevant clinical trials. This may ultimately help patients who have no other treatment options, or help them find studies they may have missed otherwise.

Mathew also hopes to develop strategies for building a UW-based cancer data repository with curated data from electronic health records and other sources. “If you think about it, cancer research at UW is poised to assemble many types of data for building predictive models,” she said. “Such models can guide personalized medicine.”

Collecting and analyzing data, however, is one thing. It’s another to ensure that the information is kept safe and secure. In a time when our personal data is routinely collected – and often mishandled – Mathew says protecting that information is key. “It’s not just integration of the data, it’s also safe handling of the data that’s included in this field,” Mathew said. “And that’s really important, as far as I’m concerned.”

Along with a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, she’s working on a National Science Foundation-funded study to develop a methodology for secure, rapid exchange of data between institutions. It’s a project that’s taken on extra importance during COVID-19, where researchers across the country must quickly share disease data with one another, while often dealing with the challenges of working from home.

“From an informatics perspective, COVID-19 provides us with a lot of opportunities,” Mathew said. “It has also pointed out some of the serious deficiencies that we have across the board at all institutions for informatics and data-centric research.”

Additionally, with the rise of telehealth, many physicians are now managing patients remotely, and many patients are now self-collecting data at home. Both parties need secure methods to share information with each other while also preserving the integrity of the data.

As Mathew gets to work addressing these areas, it’s worth noting that she hasn't been able to step foot into her office since starting the job in April. In-person work restrictions on campus due to COVID-19 means she’s had to begin this work remotely.

“I thought that it would be very difficult starting this kind of leadership role remotely, but there are so many people at UW who have made it possible,” she said. “It’s been a wonderful experience so far and I’m fortunate to have such great colleagues.”