Theses Doctoral

Computational Toxinology

Romano, Joseph Daniel

Venoms are complex mixtures of biological macromolecules and other compounds that are used for predatory and defensive purposes by hundreds of thousands of known species worldwide. Throughout human history, venoms and venom components have been used to treat a vast array of illnesses, causing them to be of great clinical, economic, and academic interest to the drug discovery and toxinology communities. In spite of major computational advances that facilitate data-driven drug discovery, most therapeutic venom effects are still discovered via tedious trial-and-error, or simply by accident. In this dissertation, I describe a body of work that aims to establish a new subdiscipline of translational bioinformatics, which I name “computational toxinology”.
To accomplish this goal, I present three integrated components that span a wide range of informatics techniques: (1) VenomKB, (2) VenomSeq, and (3) VenomKB’s Semantic API. To provide a platform for structuring, representing, retrieving, and integrating venom data relevant to drug discovery, VenomKB provides a database-backed web application and knowledge base for computational toxinology. VenomKB is structured according to a fully-featured ontology of venoms, and provides data aggregated from many popular web re- sources. VenomSeq is a biotechnology workflow that is designed to generate new high-throughput sequencing data for incorporation into VenomKB. Specifically, we expose human cells to controlled doses of crude venoms, conduct RNA-Sequencing, and build profiles of differential gene expression, which we then compare to publicly-available differential expression data for known dis- eases and drugs with known effects, and use those comparisons to hypothesize ways that the venoms could act in a therapeutic manner, as well. These data are then integrated into VenomKB, where they can be effectively retrieved and evaluated using existing data and known therapeutic associations. VenomKB’s Semantic API further develops this functionality by providing an intelligent, powerful, and user-friendly interface for querying the complex underlying data in VenomKB in a way that reflects the intuitive, human-understandable mean- ing of those data. The Semantic API is designed to cater to the needs of advanced users as well as laypersons and bench scientists without previous expertise in computational biology and semantic data analysis.
In each chapter of the dissertation, I describe how we evaluated these 3 components through various approaches. We demonstrate the utility of VenomKB and the Semantic API by testing a number of practical use-cases for each, designed to highlight their ability to rediscover existing knowledge as well as suggesting potential areas for future exploration. We use statistics and data science techniques to evaluate VenomSeq on 25 diverse species of venomous animals, and propose biologically feasible explanations for significant findings. In evaluating the Semantic API, I show how observations on VenomSeq data can be interpreted and placed into the context of past research by members of the larger toxinology community.
Computational toxinology is a toolbox designed to be used by multiple stakeholders (toxinologists, computational biologists, and systems pharmacologists, among others) to improve the return rate of clinically-significant findings from manual experimentation. It aims to achieve this goal by enabling access to data, providing means for easy validation of results, and suggesting specific hypotheses that are preliminarily supported by rigorous inferential statistics. All components of the research I describe are open-access and publicly available, to improve reproducibility and encourage widespread adoption


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Biomedical Informatics
Thesis Advisors
Tatonetti, Nicholas P.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 6, 2019