A Big Gift Gets Behind the Promise of Bioinformatics

A big trend in biomedical giving these days is backing projects that both amass new data and make it widely accessible to researchers. We've been closely tracking such efforts in regard to a number of medical challenges, including autism. 

Now comes a huge initiative to establish the largest ever open-access repository of bioinformatics data on autism. It will be housed at Stanford and made possible with a $9 million gift from the Hartwell Foundation. The bioinformatics data covers more than just genetics. That’s phenotypes, proteomics, metabolomics, genomics, measurements and imaging of brain activity, information on the gut microbiome, blood-based biomarkers, physician narratives, diagnostic test results and treatment protocols.

The Simons Foundation is one of the collaborators, along with UCLA and the New York Genome Center. The project is called the Hartwell Autism Research and Technology Initiative (iHART), and it will provide the scientific community with something it doesn’t have yet: a centralized, comprehensive repository of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) data. There are data centers, sure, but mostly they focus on genetics. You can learn a lot about autism from genetics, but these researchers want to create a haven where people can find answers to many different questions simultaneously. All data types are integrated, so users can take advantage of the full potential of available data related to autism. Data from nearly five thousand individuals affected with ASD will be cataloged. The initiative will be led by Dennis Wall, Ph.D., an autism researcher at Stanford Medicine.

"Our goal is for iHART's easily accessible computing and analytics platform to enable complex queries that may refine the definitions of autism," said Wall. "We hope iHART will lead the way toward clinical translation of various biomarkers for early detection and therapeutic intervention, and provide a multitude of solutions that help families and their children."