Melissa A. Haendel joins CU Anschutz as Chief Research Informatics Officer

Melissa A. Haendel, PhD, has been named Chief Research Informatics Officer (CRIO) for the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, a newly created position responsible for transforming the campus use of information and information systems to accelerate biomedical discoveries, streamline health system operations, and continuously improve patient care. 

The CRIO office will lead efforts to strategize and coordinate informatics governance, infrastructure, data management, and data-driven analytics across the Anschutz schools. The CRIO will be a key partner for centers and hospital partners on the campus, accelerating research and translating those discoveries to improvements in care. 

“Institutions that have invested in their informatics infrastructure, expertise, training, and data governance experience greater efficiencies, innovations, financial outlooks, and importantly, improved care and patient outcomes,” Haendel said. “At the Anschutz Medical Campus, we have an excellent opportunity to work together to make a difference for patients, learners, researchers, and the entire biomedical community. Collaboration is key to realizing the promise of precision medicine, to deploying new models for training health professionals, and to achieving global research prominence.”

Haendel will also hold an appointment as professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics in the CU School of Medicine. Her appointment is effective April 1. She joins CU from the Oregon Health & Science University, where she leads the Translational and Integrative Sciences Laboratory and is a professor of medical informatics and clinical epidemiology.

“Melissa is a national leader who brings key insight into data science strategy, impressive credentials, and a robust portfolio of externally funded research work,” said John J. Reilly, Jr., MD, dean of the School of Medicine and vice chancellor for health affairs. “We look forward to the contributions Melissa will make in helping us put our data to work for the greater good. We are pleased to welcome her to our faculty.”

Haendel describes her work as the art of data translation. She is leading multiple efforts that develop data integration technologies, innovative communication strategies, and collaborative education and outreach efforts.

Haendel serves as the director of the National Center for Data to Health (CD2H), a National Institutes of Health program that works to improve collaborative analytics across 60 Clinical and Translational Science Award Institutes, including the Colorado Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (CCTSI). The CD2H is focused on national data sharing, cloud and information architecture, and clinical data interoperability.

During the pandemic, the CD2H led the effort to create a centralized, anonymous database of health records from people who tested positive for COVID-19, the National COVID Cohort Collaborative Data (N3C). The N3C is critical to understanding why some people get sicker than others, how the disease interacts with conditions like cancer or asthma, and whether treatments are effective.

Tellen Bennett, MD, director of informatics at the CCTSI, plays a leadership role in N3C and led the first analysis of the cohort. “Dr. Haendel is a brilliant informaticist, a strategic leader, and a gifted coalition-builder,” he said. “She led the amazingly rapid development of N3C, which is now the largest existing EHR data resource. It is poised to address ongoing challenges, such as long COVID.”

Haendel also co-founded the Monarch Initiative, an international consortium dedicated to the integration of model organism and human data to support rare disease diagnostics and mechanism discovery. She brings with her to Anschutz a National Human Genome Research Institute Center of Excellence in Genome Sciences that is dedicated to making phenotypic data computable for genomic health applications. Haendel also leads the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Cancer Data Harmonization, which harmonizes cancer research data for multimodal analytics.

“The Colorado Center for Personalized Medicine and its primary stakeholders (UCHealth, CU School of Medicine, Children’s Hospital Colorado) are each world-class institutions in their own right,” said Director Kathleen Barnes, PhD.  “Dr. Haendel’s arrival signals a new era of synergy at our institution, and with her innovative informatics leadership, the Anschutz Medical Campus will become even more than the sum of our biomedical informatics parts.” 

After earning her doctorate in neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, she completed post-doctoral fellowships in developmental biology at the University of Oregon and in toxicology at Oregon State University. In 2010, Haendel joined the Oregon Health & Science University faculty, and has also held a faculty appointment as Director of Translational Data Science at Oregon State University since 2018. Haendel is currently a principal investigator on 10 externally funded programs totaling $9.9 million per year. She is the author of more than 100 peer-reviewed research articles and 20 book chapters, editorials, and reviews. Her work is frequently referenced in the scientific literature, on more than 9,500 occasions at last count. 

In his State of the School address in 2020, Reilly outlined a plan to boost the quality of data analytics on the Anschutz Medical Campus. “It does not make any sense to have made the investments in all these new technologies and new science on the campus … and not be able to process the data with state-of-the-art techniques,” Reilly said. “We’re going to have to start recruiting people, both a workforce to meet the service needs as well as people who have the capacity to grow into thought leaders and developers in these fields, and that will be a primary focus for us in the years ahead.”

Since then, the School has added Casey Greene, PhD, as director of the Center for Health Artificial Intelligence, and Sean Davis, MD, PhD, a 13-year veteran of the National Cancer Institute, to serve as associate director for informatics and data science at the University of Colorado Cancer Center.

In his 2021 State of the School address, Reilly said he is committed to establishing a new department dedicated to data science and informatics by July 2022.

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