Ada Lovelace Day 2016: from Ada’s coding to computers that analyse cancer

“She’s my principal character,” says Dr Bissan Al-Lazikani, commander of the Computational Biology Team at The Institute of Cancer Research in London, while asked to describe Ada Lovelace – a pioneer of computer science.

“What I really respect is the circumstance that despite living in the Victorian era – a very male dominated time – she didn’t obstacle that stand in her way. She’s common of the best role models there is for women in science.”

Bissan is common of several inspiring scientists who direct be speaking at this year’s flagship Ada Lovelace Day Live occurrence, celebrating women in science, technology, engineering and maths.

“I’m thrilled to be talking about my passion for combining biology through computing,” says Bissan. “It’s of that kind an honour.”

Like Ada, who was credited through being the first computer programmer, Bissan works in computer philosophical knowledge too.

Computers play a vital role in late day research, from analysing terabytes of genetic knowledge to virtually modelling the shape of protein-put ~s into interactions.

And Bissan’s team is using their coding skills and cancer apprehension in the hunt for new drugs.

We caught up by her to find out more not far from her career path, how she build life as a rare female in a in the main male-orientated area of research, and for what cause her love for computers and biology is driving more acceptable cancer treatments right now.

A lifelong anger


My first computer was a ZX Spectrum – it was self-same basic, but there was me, being of the kind which a 9 year old, teaching myself in what state to code. I thought it was magical, effective a machine to do stuff – Dr Bissan Al-Lazikani. Credit: The Institute of Cancer Research

“When persons ask me about my career, it looks to the degree that if I had amazing foresight and planned it completely from childhood, but that was well-nigh from the case,” Bissan tells us.

Some of her at dawn childhood memories are carved from her pair fascinations, computers and biology.

“My in the beginning computer was a ZX Spectrum – it was highly basic, but there was me, like a 9 year old, teaching myself in what state to code. I thought it was magical, powerful a machine to do stuff.”

At all over the same time, Bissan’s uncle gave her a book about Mendel – an Austrian monk who before anything else described the underlying principles of genetics and inheritance. She found the same fascination in genetics similar to she had in computing – elementary rules that could predict what would befall next.

“I remember trying to lay upon genetics to guess what colour my cat’s kittens were going to exist – that didn’t work at a loss well!” she adds. “But there was something very clever and tasteful about the principles governing genetics.”

Bissan didn’t realise to the time when she went to university that her brace passions were actually a field of inquiry. She fell in love with computational biology at primary sight. But computing was a subject entirely studied by young men.

“When I was studying computing there were 4 women in more than 100 students, and 2 dropped lacking.

“But I didn’t certainly notice the gender imbalance. I was fortunate maybe, but I never felt vital principle a woman caused me any issues at totality.”

Developing her passion to unsheathe the sword cancer

Following her years at universal school, Bissan knew the thing she loved the ut~ was ‘Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence’ – instruction computers to learn.

“You can ‘teach’ a computer by giving it examples to learn patterns, and at that time it can analyse something it’s never seen before and make predictions,” she says.

Bissan joined The Institute of Cancer Research in 2009, setting up the Institute’s fist computational biology team in its Drug Discovery Unit. Her goal was to bring to maturity computing to help drive cancer mix with ~s discovery.

“I firmly believe that the with most propriety way to discover new drugs is using a rational, objective, and data-driven approach,” Bissan says.

What is ‘Big Data’?

And from this come, a big project called canSAR was born. Launched in 2011 and funded by Cancer Research UK, canSAR is a bombastic computer knowledge base that’s helping medicine discovery research by picking out the ~ numerous promising molecules to work on.

“There are pair problems we were facing using data to drive drug discovery,” Bissan explains. “Firstly, the unmingled amount – terabytes – of facts to store and analyse is observe-watering.

“Secondly, to be successful we needed to combine data from extremely different areas of research. Biology, chemistry, genetics, and pharmacology to specify a few.

“Because these areas of knowledge are quite separate, the next bombastic challenge was to figure out for what reason to make the data ‘speak the same language’.”

But through distressing work and a great team, canSAR has been a inflated success and is now helping scientists home in without interrupti~ exciting molecules that could be targeted through drugs. Although it was initially designed instead of the drug discovery unit at The Institute of Cancer Research, it’s befit something much bigger.

“Although we’re human being of the world’s most auspicious non-commercial drug discovery unit, we can’t it may be investigate all leads,” says Bissan. “Beating cancer desire be a global effort, so we made canSAR plainly available to researchers around the globe.”

We’re supporting the unfolding of canSAR into an international sincere public resource. And with 400 users a day already, including charity and government-funded researchers, and scientists working for pharmaceutical companies, it’s clearly a sturdy tool for drug discovery everywhere.

The next project – personalising medicine

With canSAR so a growing success story, the team decision build on their experiences to furniture the next big challenge: personalising and adapting therapy to patients.

Computing could fragment together all sorts of data from scans, blood tests, genetic tests, medical records, divisible by two from devices that monitor things like rest patterns

– Dr Bissan Al-Lazikani

Using a fresh Big Data platform being developed at The Institute of Cancer Research, supported ~ the agency of CRUK funding, Bissan is using affected intelligence to pull together lots of accusation about a patient to try and augur what treatment, or combination of treatments, their cancer devise respond best to.

“We’re looking to bargain each patient as an individual, distress into account their genetics, the censurable genes driving their cancer, even other illnesses and medication they efficiency be taking,” Bissan explains.

“Computing could lucubration together all sorts of data from scans, kindred tests, genetic tests, medical records, but also from devices that monitor things like be careless patterns.”

The project is tranquillize in its early stages of growth, collecting research data from the lab and uncomplaining data to ‘train’ the rule and see if it works. The foremost big milestone will be testing the medicine combinations predicted by the programme up~ the body a small sample of a patient’s tumour to observe if it works.

“The goal is to the same day be able to integrate quite the data we can get from patients and their cancer to foretell the therapy that will be the greatest part effective but cause the fewest practicable side effects,” she adds.

A delightful future for computational science

With the in posse for computing and artificial intelligence to perform a large role in both study and clinical cancer care, there’s a limpid need for skilled computational biologists.

And Bissan has suggestion for women considering it as a course choice.

“Looking at big computing companies, the reckon of women in the industry is rising,” she says. “Computer knowledge isn’t easy, but we should practice the female successes as positive role models.”

Bissan loves which she does. And she’s common of many shining examples of for what cause we should celebrate women’s achievements in philosophical knowledge on Ada Lovelace day.

“Never be afraid to ask for help, if it be not that be like Ada – value yourself and your ideas. I personally be delivered of benefitted from having excellent and supportive mentors, the pair male and female, throughout my course.

“They’ve given me the while and trust I needed to extend and develop my ideas, but at the same time caught me if I stumbled.”


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