Alexander Lex, Ph.D., research scientist of the visual computing group of Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said that visualization of large datasets of experimental data has allowed his group to identify changes in specific biological pathways when looking, for example, at cancer data.
“Our Caleydo project was designed to bring biomolecular data into a visual form that helps researchers in finding relationships within large sets of data. Our approach can tackle various types of data, ranging from mutation, methylation patterns, gene expression, and microRNAs, to clinical data and pathways.
“This enables, for example, looking at subtypes of glioblastoma. Distinguishing factors of cancer subtypes could be derived from experimental data, but integrating a wide variety of datasets enables researchers to characterize subtypes better, to find supporting evidence in the clinical data, or to reason about causes based on pathways.” He further discussed that Caleydo has been applied to various datasets and has been successfully used to analyze data from The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA).
Dr. Lex has also focused on the modulation of behavior of genes for potential application in drug discovery. “It would be interesting not only to find out how a certain gene works, but also how a drug affects the gene and how this affects the rest of the pathway it is associated with,” explained Dr. Lex.
“One of the challenges in our research involves the size of the network during analysis. Some think that using smaller pathways is good, but this may not be true at all times, since small pathways remove the complexity we observe in reality. One challenge therefore is to find a compromise between what to show and what to hide, so a researcher can make informed decisions without being drowned in information. Finding this balance also stresses the importance of collaborations with various researcher disciplines.”
Pathway analysis has also been used in studies involving secondary metabolism. “We look for families of genes that are associated with the biosynthesis of chemical compounds,” said Daniel Udwary, Ph.D., assistant professor, biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences, University of Rhode Island.
“We are interested in identifying new drugs from natural products and looking at various bacterial species based on their metabolomes. One particular feature of working with microbial metabolomes is that their genes are often clustered within an area in the genome. It is thus simply a matter of looking around that gene and the rest of the cluster is there; this also occurs in fungi, but not in plants and other higher-order organisms.”
Dr. Udwary’s research has concentrated on identifying gene clusters that are associated with the synthesis of secondary metabolites. “We have currently identified 3,892 gene clusters with specific pathways, and it is interesting to know that each pathway is different. It is almost the same as snowflakes, in which each one is unique. Now our challenge after identifying specific pathways is to be able to predict the mechanism of a specific gene based on its DNA sequence.”
Dr. Udwary plans to conduct comparative analyses of gene clusters among various microbial species to establish natural products-based drug discovery roadmaps.
“Unfortunately, drug discovery using natural products has diminished in the last few decades and a lot of potential mechanisms have been overlooked. It is critical for us to recognize that the horizontal transfer of genes plays an important role in the biosynthesis of new drugs, and thus revisiting these operons in microbial species can help in establishing trends in secondary metabolism.”
Pathway analysis has also helped scientists in elucidating mechanisms of drug action. According to Joshua Apgar, Ph.D., principal scientist of systems biology, department of immunology and inflammation at Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals, their use of well-described pathway models has helped them understand drug selectivity and functionality.
“We are inspired by the fact that some compounds show functional selectivity in vivo but are not selective in vitro. We are interested in identifying on-target and off-target mechanisms of new drugs and how systems-level processes can affect these mechanisms,” explained Dr. Apgar.
These processes are quite complicated and may be influenced by a variety of feedback processes that only exist in vivo. Reconstruction of all these processes in vitro may be impossible and thus the use of pathway models has assisted their investigations of drug target effects.