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PhD Defense: Computational methods for the identification of mutation signatures and intracellular microbes in cancer
Welles Robinson
Monday, April 12, 2021, 9:00-11:00 am Calendar
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As of 2017, cancer was the second leading cause of death in the United States behind heart disease, killing ~600,000 Americans per year. Technological advances have lowered the cost of sequencing a tumor genome even faster than would have been predicted by Moore’s law. However, specialized computational techniques are required to effectively analyze this genomic data. In this dissertation, we present two such computational approaches to address key challenges in the field of computational cancer biology. Given the importance of reproducibility in biomedical research, we provide publicly available workflows for reproducing the results from our computational approaches.

In the first chapter of this thesis, we present a novel approach for the extraction of mutation signatures from matrices of somatic mutations. One computational challenge for extracting mutation signatures is the relatively small number of mutations in each tumor compared to the relatively large number of distinct signatures, which can be mathematically similar to each other. To help address this computational challenge, we apply ideas from the field of topic modeling to develop the first mutation signature model, the Tumor Covariate Signature Model (TCSM), that can incorporate known tumor covariates. We focus on two mathematically similar signatures associated with distinct covariates to evaluate TCSM and show that by leveraging these covariates, TCSM can more accurately distinguish between mutations attributed to these two signatures than existing NMF-based approaches.

The second chapter focuses on the microbes (ex. bacteria and viruses) in the tumor microenvironment. It is not currently known whether microbial reads identified from tumor sequencing datasets result from contamination or represent either extracellular or intracellular microbes present in the tumor microenvironment. We develop a computation approach named CSI-Microbes (computational identification of Cell type Specific Intracellular Microbes) that mines single-cell RNA sequencing (scRNA-seq) datasets to identify cell-type specific intracellular microbes from contaminating microbes. We show that CSI-Microbes can identify previously reported intracellular microbes from both human-designed and cancer scRNA-seq datasets. Finally, we apply CSI-Microbes to a large scRNA-seq lung cancer dataset and identify microbial taxa in tumor cells with a transcriptomic signature of decreased immune activity.

Examining Committee: 
                           Chair:              Dr. Max Leiserson       
                           Co-Chair:        Dr. Eytan Ruppin             
                          Dean's rep:      Dr. Najib M. El-Sayed 
                          Members:         Dr.  Rob Patro
                                                Dr. Furong Huang   
Welles Robinson is a fifth year PhD student supervised by Eytan Ruppin and Max Leiserson. Before coming to UMD, he received his undergraduate degree from Georgetown University in computer science. He is interested in the intersection of computer science and cancer biology. He is a member of the Cancer Data Science Lab at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and has been collaborating with the Surgery Branch at the NCI since 2019.


This talk is organized by Tom Hurst