Meet Hossein Khiabanian

Learn why bioinformatics is an essential component for advancing precision medicine

Whether we are examining how diseases like cancer evolve, or pathogens like influenza spread, Bioinformatics is a research tool that has powerful applications in the real world—insights that Hossein Khiabanian, curriculum designer of the Biology and Biotechnology for Bioinformatics course, highlighted in a recent conversation.

When talking to Dr. Khiabanian, it becomes very clear that we live in a time of revolutionary change in Biotechnology, where access to the sheer quantity of data available to researchers is now making possible the kinds of leaps forward that the disciplines like physics made when they were able to marry precise observations with innovations in quantitative interpretation.

According to Khiabanian, we are at the point where one can actually see the effects of Darwinian natural selection at work in individual patients. But genetic alterations that drive disease cannot be understood or counteracted without leveraging the tools now available to us through Bioinformatics.


What’s your professional passion? Of all your professional and research interests, which do you feel especially strong about?

My graduate training is in physics and cosmology; therefore, I am naturally inclined to put our work in genomics in the broader historical context of advancements in science. The study of astronomy was marked by important paradigm shifts based on precise observations that were interpreted by the quantitative language of mathematics and geometry. With the advent of genomic sequencing and high-throughput methods, we are moving into an era that is characterized by vast amounts of unbiased data. We can now truly observe Darwin's natural selection in individual patients. I am especially intrigued by the random accumulation of genomic alterations in almost all cells in our bodies as we age. These mutated cells most often do not impact our health, but when they are selected because of changes in their environment, they can result in substantial disease. We are now working on methods that can computationally model this process of natural selection to predict risk based on the form of alteration and the cell types that are mutated.


What is the role of this course, Biology and Biotechnology for Bioinformatics, in the bioinformatics program as a whole?

It will introduce the students to biotechnological methods and their underlying biology. Students develop a sense of the historical background of modern methods in molecular biology and are introduced to the informatics approaches that are needed to analyze genomic data.


What topics in this course do you personally find most compelling and why?

The early modules in the course are designed to put the latest technologies in historical perspective. I very much enjoyed assembling early experiments in genetics and linking them with the most recent applications of biotechnological methods, which are discussed towards the end of the course. Throughout the course, I try to emphasize the fundamental role of Darwinian evolution in developing sequencing methods as well as interpreting the data that they produce.


What about it is cutting edge or extremely current?

Sequencing technologies have advanced with incredible speed. Experiments that are routinely performed these days were not possible a few years ago. In this context, students explore the latest applications of biotechnological methods, and read papers that were published as recently as two weeks ago.


Why is your course relevant to the world we now live in? In your mind, what gives it immediacy and urgency?

Bioinformatics has become a fundamental part of molecular biology. In this course we study its applications--from understanding how diseases like cancer evolve to how pathogens like influenza spread throughout the globe. In the clinic, physicians and oncologists rely on comprehensive computational analyses to interpret mutations detected in the tumors from individual patients, commonly known as precision medicine. My hope is that the topics we study throughout the course provide the necessary knowledge of biology and biotechnology and also inspire students to pursue careers in informatics. I believe that this course, in conjunction with others within the bioinformatics program, will equip students with the skill sets they need to not only get started as informatics analysts, but also contribute to the advancement of the field.


How is the course relevant to research--how does it fit into today's science and research community?

In modern molecular biology, nucleic acid sequencing has become a fundamental part of any experiment. They provide the power for unbiased probing of the genome as well as the interactions between the DNA and other biological entities. However, they produce very large amounts of data that cannot be analyzed without bioinformatics approaches. This course prepares students to understand how sequencing experiments are implemented in basic research settings while considering the necessary steps in analyzing their results.