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Will hypothesis or data-driven research advance science? A Stanford biochemist weighs in

Will hypothesis or data-driven research advance science? A Stanford biochemist weighs in

The 2014 Big Data in Biomedicine conference was held here last month, and keynote speakers, panelists, moderators and attendees are now available on the Stanford Medicine YouTube channel. To continue the discussion of how big data can be harnessed to benefit human health, we’ll be featuring a selection of the videos this month on Scope.

Julia Salzman, PhD, a Stanford assistant professor of biochemistry, is concerned that significant amount of data is being thrown in the trash “because the data don’t fit our sense of what they should look like.” At Big Data in Biomedicine 2014, she explained how giving her computers a long leash led her down an unexpected path and the discovery of a new, and probably noteworthy, biological entity. My colleague Bruce Goldman highlighted her findings in a news release:

Using computational pattern-recognition software, her team discovered numerous instances in which pieces of RNA that normally are stitched together in a particular linear sequence were, instead, assembled in the “wrong” order (with what’s normally the final piece in the sequence preceding what’s normally the first piece, for example). The anomaly was resolved with the realization that what Salzman and her group were seeing were breakdown products of circular RNA — a novel conformation of the molecule.

In its circular form, she noted, an RNA molecule is much more impervious to degradation by ubiquitous RNA-snipping enzymes, so it is more likely than its linear RNA counterparts to persist in a person’s blood. Every cell in the body produces circular RNA, she said, but it seems to be produced at greater levels in many human cancer cells. While its detailed functions remain to be revealed, these features of circular RNA may position it as an excellent target for a blood test, she said.

In the above Behind the Scenes at Big Data video, Salzman discusses her work and addresses a question asked during the Single Cells to Exacycles panel: In this next era of science, will science advance mainly through hypothesis or data driven research? She comments, “I think that’s a fundamental question moving forward, whether the scientific method is dead or whether it’s still alive and kicking. I think that’s a really important question for us as to answer and deal with as scientists.” Watch the interview to find out the rest of Salzman’s thoughts on the issue.

Previously: Rising to the challenge of harnessing big data to benefit patients, Discussing access and transparency of big data in government and U.S. Chief Technology Officer kicks off Big Data in Biomedicine

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