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Q&A: Atul Butte on New Roles at UCSF's Computational and Clinical Informatics Centers


NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – On April 1, Atul Butte stepped into his new role as director of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, taking over from interim directors Neil Risch and Michael Fischbach.

The university also named Butte executive director of clinical informatics for UC Health Sciences and Services. In the role, he will assist UC Senior Vice President John Stobo and other UC faculty and staff in the ongoing development and implementation of the UC data warehouse and analytic platform. The platform is intended to provide researchers with tools to use the vast amount of clinical data being generated by the five medical centers in the University of California system to better understand disease and develop more effective therapies.

Prior to moving to UCSF, Butte was chief of the Division of Systems Medicine and associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford University and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. Before that, he worked as a software engineer at Apple and Microsoft. Butte trained in both computer science and medicine at Brown University and received his PhD in Health Sciences and Technology from Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has also founded several biotech startup companies.

This week, GenomeWeb sat down with Butte to talk about the responsibilities of both of his roles as well as his goals for his first year in office. What follows is an edited version of the conversation.

So you've been at the helm at UCSF for about two months now. How are things going so far?

It's been busy! 

You hold a couple of positions at UCSF. What are the roles and responsibilities of both positions?

First and foremost is the academic mission. UCSF is a great academic medical center with four different schools including the medical school. My job is to build out this institute for computational health sciences, which means really recruiting some top talent faculty members over the next three years, then mentoring those faculty members as needed and making sure that they are successful.  Of course, [I'm] instituting my own lab here, as well. With that comes the educational mission — [we've got] medical students, medical fellows, and research institutes here. So we are really bringing more big data and more informatics types of projects to the center.

I'm also been placed in charge of the California Initiative to Advance Precision Medicine so it's been busy. Governor [Jerry] Brown of California put in money into the state budget for precision medicine pilot projects and exploring state assets in this field, so it's exciting to be able to do that as well.

One of the things that was mentioned in the initial press release announcing your appointment was that in your capacity as executive director of clinical informatics for UC Health Sciences and Services, you'd be working with others on a data warehouse and platform. Can you talk a little bit about the efforts there?

In addition to the academic mission, I am also working with the University of California system itself. UCSF is one of five UC medical schools and together we have enormous impact; for example, we train half the physicians in the state through these medical schools. The idea is to oversee the building of a common data warehouse for research and development across all 13 million patients seen at the University of California. That's a significant number. If you do the math, that's as much as four percent of the US population, seen at the University of California.

Can you go into some specifics about the sort of infrastructure that's being put in place to house all that data?

It's important to first note that these five medical centers have already been exchanging data for years. The University of California has had UC Rex where each center has been able to query the other medical centers to see if they have patients matching various characteristics. But today it still takes longer to get the actual de-identified clinical data out of those centers. So the next step is to have more of the de-identified clinical data more easily and centrally accessible. Patients will of course be involved in the design and implementation. The idea is to have accessible de-identified records from consented patients. This kind of platform could enable many downstream uses, potentially from research to new apps, services, and data for patients themselves.

We have not made any specific decisions on the platform implementation, but we will likely start with tools available from the electronic health record vendors themselves, such as Epic.

I'd like a little bit more detail about your role as head of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences. You took over from two gentlemen who'd been serving as interim directors since the center's launch. Can you talk a little bit about the foundations they'd already laid and your plans to build on that work?

Neil Risch and Michael Fischbach were the interim directors. This institute was actually formed several years ago by a blue ribbon panel of advisors, who recognized that it was going to take time to recruit a director like myself. So the institute itself was running in a kind of stealth mode while they were hiring more junior faculty members. My role as a director now is to get more senior faculty members recruited to UCSF.

Earlier, you mentioned that you'd been working on getting your lab set up at UCSF. Did all members move from Stanford with you?

Nearly everyone in my lab at Stanford moved to UCSF, except for a few who were getting positions elsewhere.

You were also involved in a lot of projects at Stanford, far too many to mention here, but one that leaps to mind is the ImmPort project which aimed to build out an immunology database and web portal. Did those projects move with you as well?

Yes, we are moving all of our projects to UCSF including ImmPort.

Can you share some details about upcoming projects that you'll be working on?

There are some in the area of cancer. UCSF has a great cancer center so it's great to be able to take a grant like that to UCSF.

What would you say are your main goals for say the first one, two, or three years of your tenure in these new positions?

There's obviously a lot to build but I would like to get a couple of key new faculty members recruited. We need to launch more training programs, including one in clinical informatics. Obviously, we will be administering the California Initiative to Advance Precision Medicine initiative and we want that go smoothly. If we can get all this launched in the first year, I will be happy.

Speaking of hiring, are you looking for specific skills/talents in your hires?

We are definitely hiring right now. In my lab, we are looking for bioinformatics staff personnel as well as post docs. And for the entire institute, we are going to be hiring an executive director and that position will be announced pretty soon. For the California Initiative, we are hiring a director level person to help coordinate the pilots. So we have multiple openings right now and many more to come as we go through the summer and the fall. As a quick aside, many of my startup companies are hiring too, like NuMedii and Personalis. It does seem like a great time to be looking for a position in biomedical informatics.