UNO student uses DNA to study infectious diseases

Photo courtesy of Kelsey Woodson

Greg Staskiewicz

Held in our blood, waiting to be found, is a key to both the past and the future: DNA.

Ryan Ehrlich, a second year doctoral student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is trying to use that key. Ehrlich is studying biomedical informatics, the science of analyzing complex biological data.

His research this summer involves supercomputers and human DNA. Ehrlich said he and his advisor, Dr. Dario Ghersi create computational models to analyze DNA taken from human subjects.

This DNA comes from drops of blood sequenced at the University of Massachusetts, Ghersi said.

The goal of the research is to examine the DNA to determine subjects’ history of exposure to infectious disease and their possible future susceptibility to such diseases.

Findings from this program have potentially massive implications for the future. Not only can these computer models analyze individual people’s immune response, but the models would also be able to analyze whole populations’ exposure and susceptibility to infectious diseases.

For instance, Ghersi said 90 to 95 percent of people have been exposed to mononucleosis, or “mono”, whether they were aware of it or not. Though these people were exposed to the virus, most people’s immune systems were able to deal with the threat.

Understanding the body’s immune responses has implications for cancer research, including prognosis and new treatments, Ehrlich said. One such goal is to eventually be able to use the body’s immune system to kill cancerous cells on its own.

Ehrlich studied biology as an undergraduate at Nebraska Wesleyan University and went on to earn his master’s degree in biomedical informatics at UNO.

He began to learn computer programming when he started his master’s program.

“They threw me into Java 1 and stuff with all the freshmen,” Ehrlich said.

Adding knowledge of computer science to a biology degree opens up much more potential for analysis and availability of data, he said.

“If there’s enough data out there for you to develop a story, then you can do some pretty awesome things with it,” Ehrlich said.

Though he didn’t come from a background in computer science, his work now mostly involves computers.

Most of Ehrlich’s and Ghersi’s computational work is done on the Tusker supercomputer, once a top 500 supercomputer. The computer is accessed from the Holland Computing Center in the Peter Kiewit Institute.

Where a standard desktop computer would need weeks to run their analysis program, Tusker needs only hours or days.

Ehrlich said doctoral work can be rewarding when you start to see steady progress, though it is often overwhelming

“Honestly, what it feels like most of the time, is I’ve always told people that I feel like I’m just trying to keep my head above water,” he said. “You hit highs and you maybe hit lows, and it’s a bit of a rollercoaster ride because at this point, you’re realizing how much you don’t know, and you’re having to learn new things constantly.”