Megha Padi, PhD, harnesses the computational power of bioinformatics to learn more about cancer and how best to treat it — and empowers other cancer researchers to do the same.
After earning her doctorate in physics at Harvard, Megha Padi, PhD, plans to draw from her expertise in bioinformatics, math and biology to expand collaboration at the University of Arizona Cancer Center and the entire UA campus.
Dr. Padi has been appointed director of the Bioinformatics Shared Resource at the UA Cancer Center and is an assistant professor in the UA Department of Molecular & Cellular Biology.
In her new roles, she provides research support to UA Cancer Center investigators, connecting them with faculty members in other departments, such as mathematics and computer science. She is bilingual in the lexicons of both math and biology, and hopes to use her “interpreter skills” to facilitate conversations and expand collaboration.
“We’re looking for people who have the ability to speak both languages,” Dr. Padi said. “Right now, there could be problems that are lying around unsolved, because the faculty member didn’t know someone else on campus was solving that same problem.”
Dr. Padi joins the UA from Boston, where she taught at Harvard Medical School and served as a postdoctoral fellow at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Harvard School of Public Health.
“We look forward to the high-impact science that will emerge from Dr. Padi’s lab,” said UA Cancer Center Director Andrew Kraft, MD. “Additionally, the entire Center will benefit from her expertise in bioinformatics and ability to link our scientists to important tools for their own research.”
“Dr. Padi is an amazing systems biologist who uses bioinformatics and computational biology to explore a host of cancer-related questions,” said Joyce Schroeder, PhD, director of the UA Cancer Center Metastatic Breast Cancer Initiative and professor and head of the UA Department of Molecular & Cellular Biology. “We are all very excited she is here.”
Dr. Padi’s journey took a few twists and turns between 2009, when she received her doctorate in physics, and her career in cancer research today.
“My PhD was in string theory, which combines gravity and quantum mechanics,” Dr. Padi explained. “It’s especially interesting in the context of black holes and other astronomical features that we’re not able to model properly with the tools we have in physics.”
The connection between black holes and cancer is not as tenuous as most people might think. Both can be studied with mathematical models, which use math to make inferences or predictions about events unable to be directly observed with the human eye.
“When I received my PhD, I realized I had been spending a lot of time building good mathematical models for phenomena that are really complex — but there wasn’t much data available to test your theories,” recalled Dr. Padi.
At the same time, an abundance of data was emerging from breakthroughs in genetic sequencing. Dr. Padi arrived on the scene just in time to help wrangle the outpouring of difficult-to-analyze datasets produced by the genetic sequencing of cancer patients’ cells. She was eager to put her mathematical modeling skills to good use.
“Our genomes have 3 billion base pairs, which are like 3 billion letters,” explained Dr. Padi. Being able to read the genetic code can shed light on how the cells in our bodies can misfire to cause cancer. However, one person can’t read the genomes of thousands of individuals and tease out the differences associated with cancer.
“We have to have major computing power to sort through all of those sets of genomes and figure out the meaningful patterns between them,” she said. “Bioinformatics is the use of mathematics and computers to make sense of the large amounts of data coming out in biology.”
Dr. Padi hopes to use this approach to uncover evidence about cancer’s origins. For example, scientists can compare a tumor cell from a patient with breast cancer to a normal breast cell from the same patient and see what genetic mutations are present in the tumor cell that are not present in the normal cell. Comparing the two can reveal the genetic mutations that give rise to cancer.
“Figuring out which of those thousands of mutations were the ones that caused the tumor gets you at the causal mechanisms behind cancer, instead of getting bogged down in random statistical events,” Dr. Padi said.
Dr. Padi also uses computer algorithms to predict a patient’s response to a drug, based on the cancer’s unique genetic profile.
“We have millions of places in the genome where we differ from other people,” said Dr. Padi. “Those differences often cause changes in how we respond to treatment. But a person can’t read through a million letters and say, ‘You have these million letters, so you must take this drug and not the other one.’ We need computer science and informatics to sort through that.”
The computational power to sift through vast datasets of unique genomes has ushered in the era of precision medicine, which allows physicians to match patients to drugs that will work best on their particular disease.
“You want a doctor to know what the best treatments are for you,” said Dr. Padi. “To do that, we need mathematical models to predict which drug is appropriate for each person.”
While Dr. Padi is excited to “reconnect with my roots in physics” by exploring the astrophysical offerings on the UA campus, she has found that cancer research has its own rewards, even beyond intellectual satisfaction and professional partnerships.
“You can make a positive impact on human society,” said Dr. Padi, reflecting on the journey she has taken from physics to the biosciences. “It’s the best of all worlds for me, so I’ve been very happy with making that switch.”
About the University of Arizona Cancer Center
The University of Arizona Cancer Center is the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center with headquarters in Arizona. The UA Cancer Center is supported by NCI Cancer Center Support Grant No. CA023074. With primary locations at the University of Arizona in Tucson and at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, the UA Cancer Center has more than a dozen research and education offices throughout the state, with more than 300 physicians and scientists working together to prevent and cure cancer. For more information: uacc.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube)