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For Liebman, Chance to Prove Merit of Biomed Informatics

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Long a proponent of taking a top-down approach to systems biology — that is, starting with disease phenotype and clinical data and working back toward an understanding of the disease on a molecular and genomic level — Michael Liebman’s latest move is a chance to prove his approach is as good in action as it is in theory.

Formerly director of bioinformatics at the University of Pennsylvania Abramson Cancer Center, Liebman has just taken a new job as chief scientific officer at the three-year-old Windber Research Institute in western Pennsylvania.

Formed through a collaboration between Windber Medical Center and a branch of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Windber institute “was created to explore how to couple the best in clinical care in breast cancer that was being provided by the military with the best-in-breed of the genomics and proteomics capabilities — starting with a new facility — and have an impact on healthcare,” says Liebman, 56. His challenge is to take those two components, clinical data and genomics, and turn them into research that will advance the understanding of breast cancer and eventually other forms of cancer as well, such as ovarian, endometrial, and cervical.

Liebman, who had joined Penn in 2000 after serving as global director of computational biology at Roche, says the move to Windber was another step toward his goal of better medicine. “Having left industry to go to academic medicine to focus on patient care and the disease modeling associated with that,” he says, “it became clear that large, academic medical centers tend to have more conventional ways of doing things.” With access to records from the 10,000 patients a year treated at Walter Reed, Windber offered Liebman the chance to mold an almost brand-new research center in ways that he believes will have a more immediate impact.

A critical part of Liebman’s position will be figuring out ways to bring physicians and scientists together to get a whole-picture view of breast cancer. As one example of this, Liebman says researchers will watch videotapes of tissue-gathering surgical procedures to better understand what they’re working with; meanwhile, physicians will be brought into the labs to see how samples and data are analyzed.

Liebman’s post at Windber comes with perks that any scientist would envy: brand-new, high-throughput labs for sequencing, gene expression, and mass spectrometry, to name a few; a staff of 35 scientists including PhDs and MDs; plans to break ground for a cutting-edge 35,000-square-foot research facility; and a research budget of more than $20 million. “We’re seizing the opportunity to do something novel,” he says.

— Meredith Salisbury

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