Modern day clinical medicine has made great strides over the last two decades, largely because of the growing use of computers in the field. Though combining computer technology with medicine is no easy task, the Yale Center for Medical Informatics has been getting the job done for over a decade.
Since the center’s inception in 1991, it has helped to develop and install computer systems in hospitals for patient care and has created software to analyze data from huge biomedical efforts like the Human Genome and Human Brain projects. Situated on Temple Street between Old Campus and the School of Medicine, the Center focuses on three areas: neuroinformatics, bioinformatics and clinical informatics.
“In molecular biology and medical research there’s just a huge explosion of data that needs to be analyzed,” said Perry Miller, a professor of anaesthesiology and director of the center. “Medical informatics helps in the analysis process and most importantly helps to understand what it all means.”
The Human Genome Project, which ended last summer, involved international teams of scientists working together in the mapping and sequencing of all 50,000 to 100,000 genes found in human DNA. The project generated a huge wealth of data but was only the first step — the next step, taking that data and figuring out what each gene does, is when centers like the Yale Center for Medical Informatics become involved.
The center helped to develop software that works in conjunction with a process called micro-array analysis. Every cell in the human body has DNA containing a complete set of genes, but in different cells different genes are expressed. Micro-array analysis looks at thousands of decoded genes and determines where in the body they are expressed. Software that the center helped to create stores the huge datasets on gene expression that are generated from micro-array which are then analyzed by Yale researchers.
Another Yale Center for Medical Informatics effort not quite on the scale of the Human Genome Project but still extremely important is the SenseLab Project. The SenseLab Project is one aspect of the Human Brain Project, whose goal is to understand brain function at individual levels, from the genetic to behavioral — an area known as neuroinformatics. The Human Brain Project involves over 25 academic centers throughout the country working towards one goal and the SenseLab Project is Yale’s effort.
The focus of SenseLab is the brain’s olfactory system, which is responsible for humans’ sense of smell. The SenseLab project gathers information on parts of the olfactory system, ranging from the gene sequences for olfactory receptor proteins to the odor molecules that interact with these receptors. Performing the same role here as it did in the Human Genome Project, the Yale Center for Medical Informatics’ goal is to collect and analyze data. The center helps to develop databases of experimental data and computer models that turn results into usable form, Miller said.
A great deal of the center’s efforts are also geared toward implementing and improving computer systems in hospitals. When Yale-New Haven Hospital started installing computer-based medical records two years ago, the Yale Center for Medical Informatics helped tailor the system’s generic interface to each particular ward in the hospital. In another project, the center oversaw the development and implementation of software that allows doctors to look at patient X-ray images on a computer screen, not just in front of a light-box, said Bonnie Kaplan, a faculty member of the center and an anaesthesiology lecturer.