Genomics program hosts first ever Iron Hack

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More than 50 students, researchers, professors, and clinicians came together as part of the first-ever NIH/USF Biohackathon and Symposium—also called Iron Hack—sponsored by the USF genomics program.

The event’s aim was to learn about rare blood diseases and build tools to improve the lives of people living with these conditions.

A few of the collaborators at Iron Hack (from left): Krishna Sharma, Minh Pham, Dr. Rays Jiang, Chang Li, Dr. Ben Busby, Audrey Freischel, Dr. Deborah Cragun, Dr. Xioming Liu. (Photo by Paige Hunt )

It was the first NIH/USF Hackathon, according to Dr. Rays Jiang, COPH assistant professor of global health.

According to Jiang, rare diseases impose a heavy burden on patients and families.

“It takes up to 10 years, if ever, to get a diagnosis for many rare diseases,” she said. “Patients typically drain all financial and emotional resources during the process. In public health, rare diseases are often considered to be one of the ‘unsolvable’ problems, due to limited resources for each disease severely hampers research, diagnoses and treatments.”

Iron Hack represented a way to fight back through community-based problem solving, Jiang explained. 

“It is a novel form of collaboration and active learning by bringing people of different expertise together to solve problems. It is achieved through two and a half days of intense team computer programming organized in five teams,” Jiang said.

Using a cloud-based platform, participants competed for prizes and built novel tools to help expand the resources used to assist with diagnosing and treating rare diseases.

Iron Hack was funded by the USF Genomics program, which is directed by Dr. John Adams, distinguished university and USF Health professor.

Between his support and the organization efforts of Dr. Gloria Ferreira, professor in the Morsani College of Medicine, Paige Hunt, academic program specialist in the COPH, Dr. Ben Busby of the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) and Jiang, Iron Hack participants were able to successfully build collaborative projects visualizing data, building databases, improving rare disease diagnosis, and studying rare disease inheritance.

“It was amazing to be part of a group that produced five high impact projects concerning rare diseases in only two and a half days,” said Luis Tañón Reyes, a graduate student in the department of cell biology, microbiology and molecular biology.

Dr. Gloria Ferreira talking about iron-related diseases in humans. (Photo by Rays Jiang)

The event held at the USF Marshall Student Center began with a symposium where scholars based at USF and around the world shared their research, outreach, and passion for improving the lives of people with Freidreich’s ataxia and Porphyria. These stories and community-needs were shared to motivate attendees as they participated in the hackathon, according to Jiang.

“We enjoyed, first and foremost, the collaborative problem solving aspect of the symposia that we bridged the research worlds of clinicians, public health professionals, genetic counselors, biochemists, and genomics data scientists,” Jiang said. “It was a collaboration across three continents and different states within the U.S. Also, it was the first time that two rare disease public health advisory organizations, leading clinicians, biochemists and genomics scientists work together with intensity and enthusiasm in such a forum.”

Dr. Gloria Ferreira, professor at the USF Morsani College of Medicine, who worked extensively with Jiang on making Iron Hack happen, said they proposed a new model for the symposium to include short presentations every morning by clinical and research leaders in the field of rare diseases.

“[Presenters] covered topical and significant findings and emphasized the pressing questions that should be addressed,” Ferreira said. “These questions became the driving force for the development of data science tools during the Iron Hack.”

Teams worked through intense computer programing that included what Jiang described as including sleep deprivation, fun dinners, heated arguing, weight loss and even some tears.

“All memorable,” Jiang said. “Iron Hack has also led to a manuscript to report team problem solving and five prototype genomics tools to solve urgent rare diseases problems. Importantly, it also planted the seeds for immediate future collaborations between USF genomics and rare disease research community that will lead to more publications and grant proposals.”

Iron Hack attendees discuss their methods. (Photo by Ben Busby)

“If this sounds like a lot to accomplish in less than three days, that’s because it was,” said Renée Fonseca, a graduate student in bioinformatics and computational biology said.

“Sleep deprivation never felt so good or productive,” said Thomas Keller, a USF computational biologist said.

Dr. John Adams, distinguished university professor, introduces the USF Genomics program. (Photo by Anna Mayor)

Although Iron Hack has passed, the work is not yet over. Teams are now working with rare disease patients, genetic counselors, and groups at Rare Disease Day and Ancestry.com to further strengthen and grow their projects before next year’s biohackathon with the goal of one day improving the lives of people suffering from rare diseases.

NIH/USF Iron Hack winners included:

  • First Place, Data Visualization Team:
    • Guy Dayhoff
    • Charley Wang
    • Omkar Dokur
    • Lindsey Fiedler
  • First runners-up, UPWARD and Rapid Clinical Diagnostics Teams:
    • Rays Jiang
    • Deborah Cragun
    • Renée Fonseca
    • Luis Tañón Reyes
    • Alex Dean
    • Krishna Sharma
    • Xiaoming Liu
    • Chang Li
    • Tina Ho
    • Samira Jahangiri
    • Audrey Freischel

Story by Renee Fonseca and Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health

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