The Enabler

By Debra D'Agostino  |  Posted 04-06-2007

NAME: Sandy Aronson
TITLE: Director of I.T.
COMPANY: Harvard Medical School–Partners Healthcare Center for Genetics and Genomics
CAREER: Working on a Master's in biology at Harvard University

Passion is more than a word to Sandy Aronson. The 38-year-old director of IT at Harvard Medical School–Partners Healthcare Center for Genetics and Genomics is so committed to his job that he's just a thesis short of completing a master's degree in biology at Harvard University.

It's not often that an IT professional earns an advanced degree in an entirely unrelated field for the sake of his job. But to Aronson, it makes perfect sense. "As IT professionals, it's really important to understand the content area we work in with as much depth as possible," he says. "You need to understand the non-IT processes you are working to support, so you can play a positive, efficient role in the process." For Aronson, that process isn't just about cutting costs or improving productivity. Aronson's group supports a user base of more than 600 researchers, scientists, technicians and healthcare professionals, all working on genetic-based healthcare, a concept that could re-write the rules of modern medicine.

The center is studying the human genome to determine how structural differences in DNA strands, known as variants, can help doctors provide personalized treatment for their patients. For example, variants in particular strands of DNA can tell doctors if their patients would respond better to one drug over another, or experience side effects. Genetic testing also helps doctors identify diseases such as sickle-cell anemia and cancer. The ability to prescribe drugs based on a patient's specific genetic makeup could mean a tremendous improvement in care, as long as physicians have adequate systems to help them understand complex DNA data.

That's where Aronson comes in. Along with supporting the center's research and clinical testing activities, his team of 25 IT professionals is working to securely add genetic profiles to all of Partners Healthcare's 3 million electronic patient records, and build rules-based systems that will point out genetic variants—and treatment options—to doctors in day-to-day clinical settings. It's a large task: Doctors spend roughly 14 minutes with each patient, and each patient has 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up their DNA.

To accomplish these aims, Aronson takes an outside-in approach to technology, thinking first about what researchers and physicians need, and then building systems to support those goals. Three key systems have emerged from this approach. The Gateway for Integrated Genomics Proteomics, Applications and Data determines genetic variants; the Gene Insight database stores correlations between genetic variants and clinically relevant facts (e.g., a variant in a specific DNA stretch is linked with hearing loss); and the Genomic Variant Interpretation Engine serves as a reporting tool that helps researchers effectively write reports on their findings, which can be shared with doctors. Adding the genomic data to patient records that are tied to rules-based engines is the next step. "So a doctor prescribes a drug, and up comes a message saying the patient has a genetic variant that renders that drug useless," Aronson says. "If we can insert the genetic data into the process, doctors can be far more efficient."

But creating these complex systems doesn't happen in a vacuum. It takes a team of highly talented and specialized IT professionals who are skilled in IT and biology—and a talented leader to guide the way. Aronson, who earned his first master's degree in organizational behavior at Stanford University, says the key is finding the right people to be on the team in the first place. Aronson spends weeks—sometimes months—seeking the right person for each opening. "You have to be open-minded about how different skill sets come together," he says. For example, three of the most talented architects he's hired were music majors in college. "Sometimes the experience on a person's resume doesn't really reflect what they are truly capable of," he says.

It's his ability to see that potential that makes Aronson so valuable. "One of the most important things about leadership, I believe, is to surround yourself with excellence," says Raju Kucherlapati, scientific director at the Harvard–Partners Center for Genetics and Genomics. "Sandy picks great people and empowers them to do great work. And he is able to bring together very strong personalities—big-shot MDs, Ph.D.s in computer science, technologists—and get them excited about the work we are doing."

Once the team is built, the next step is to communicate with doctors, researchers and scientists to ensure the systems meet expectations. Luckily, geography makes this issue relatively simple: IT's workspace is connected to the genetics lab, allowing a healthy interaction between scientists and tech pros. "There's a lot of walking into each others' offices, no need to schedule conference calls or formal meetings," Aronson says. IT staffers frequently stop into the laboratory to talk with scientists about how technology is being used, and then modify the systems as needed. That helps IT keep up with the rapid developments made in the genetics lab: When a group of oncologists working independently at the Dana-Farber Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital identified a stretch of DNA that could be tested to see if cancer patients would respond to particular treatments, Aronson quickly mobilized and created the infrastructure that allowed the center's researchers to create a genetic test for patients.

Aronson shows his personal passion for genomics by reading volumes about the subject; he claims to have no other hobbies, though he enjoys spending time with his wife and two children. And he looks forward to the day—15 or so years from now, he guesses—when genetic sequencing will be affordable for everyone. That, he says, will create a tipping point.

"I want to make sure that IT infrastructure keeps pace with genetic technology and scientific discovery," he says. "We have the potential to drastically improve patient care, but we need to be smart about what is needed to reach this potential. Even if my contribution is small to this overall process, the process itself is so important that any contribution is significant." Passionate words indeed.