Harnessing Clinical Data to Improve Care

Sorena Nadaf

Sorena Nadaf developed an early and enduring passion for science and technology, influenced by his father, an electrical engineer and designer of complex projects like instrument landing systems for airports.

Nadaf, 43, is an associate director of UCSF’s Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, where he serves as CIO and director of its Translational Informatics program. Since he was recruited in 2008, he has spearheaded a dramatic modernization of the center’s ability to gather, store and analyze research and clinical data.

“Our scientists are amazing, and our researchers and clinicians are first rate,” Nadaf says. “Now we’re creating a first-rate data-handling infrastructure and research systems architecture that’s the equal of our science, to enable our researchers to go a step beyond.”

Nadaf’s own research lab focuses on how to use and develop data informatics techniques and methodologies to help researchers turn basic scientific discoveries into practical clinical and biomedical applications, impacting directly not only patient care, but cancer research in general.

Nadaf grew up in Dallas Texas, but when he was still in grade school, his family moved back to his father’s homeland, Iran. After the Iran-Iraq war broke out, Nadaf was whisked away to live with relatives in Italy. He attended high school there and then returned to Texas, where he played tennis and studied molecular biology at the University of Texas. He went on to graduate school in computer science and medical informatics after a short stop in Medical School, where he realized his love in 'bio-technology' surpassed his love for basic medicine.

As a graduate student, Nadaf not only managed data and was lab manager in David Carbone’s lung cancer research lab at the University of Texas, Southwestern, he also conducted his own research projects.

Carbone recognized Nadaf’s talent for handling large quantities of clinical and research data, and convinced Nadaf to join him when he moved his lab to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.

During the 13 years Nadaf spent at Vanderbilt University, its Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center received National Cancer Institute designation and also became a nationally designated comprehensive cancer center.

Nadaf was instrumental in developing Vanderbilt-Ingram’s informatics capabilities, and was eventually promoted to chief information officer and director of the center’s informatics programs.

But it wasn’t until Nadaf joined UCSF’s Diller Center that the life-saving importance of one patient’s clinical data hit home.

Recently, one of Nadaf’s close relatives was diagnosed with cancer. The young relative went from “running 100 miles per hour,” as Nadaf describes him, to losing his ability to perform simple day to day tasks.

Thankfully, he is back to his normal self now. But that experience, including witnessing the care he received at UCSF, deeply affected Nadaf. “When I saw the impact of what we’re doing here at UCSF and how it’s changed his life for the better, it made me feel that what I’m doing is not enough,” Nadaf says. “I have to do more.”

Nadaf’s appreciation for patients’ clinical data — for example, the digital images of his relative’s cancer, as well as the doses, times and outcomes of his chemotherapy and radiation treatments — has been heightened. “That data allowed me and the UCSF clinicians advising us on his care to connect the dots,” says Nadaf.

When multiplied by the thousands of patients UCSF serves, and added to the torrents of data Diller Center scientists are gathering, his relative’s clinical records are part of what Nadaf calls a “data tsunami.” The job of Nadaf and his team: Harness that tidal wave to deliver better health care.

“The power is in the data," Nadaf says. "It can help caregivers and patients make better decisions, and help researchers find cures and better treatment protocols.”

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