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

by Emma Smith | Analysis

11 October 2016

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Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace.

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

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

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

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

Like Ada, who was credited with being the first computer programmer, Bissan works in computer science too.

Computers play a vital role in modern day research, from analysing terabytes of genetic information to virtually modelling the shape of protein-drug interactions.

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

We caught up with her to find out more about her career path, how she found life as a rare female in a mainly male-orientated area of research, and how her love for computers and biology is driving better cancer treatments right now.

A lifelong passion


My first computer was a ZX Spectrum – it was very basic, but there was me, as a 9 year old, teaching myself how to code. I thought it was magical, telling a machine to do stuff – Dr Bissan Al-Lazikani. Credit: The Institute of Cancer Research

“When people ask me about my career, it looks as if I had amazing foresight and planned it all from childhood, but that was far from the case,” Bissan tells us.

Some of her early childhood memories are carved from her two fascinations, computers and biology.

“My first computer was a ZX Spectrum – it was very basic, but there was me, as a 9 year old, teaching myself how to code. I thought it was magical, telling a machine to do stuff.”

At about the same time, Bissan’s uncle gave her a book about Mendel – an Austrian monk who first described the underlying principles of genetics and inheritance. She found the same fascination in genetics as she had in computing – simple rules that could predict what would happen next.

“I remember trying to apply genetics to guess what colour my cat’s kittens were going to be – that didn’t work out well!” she adds. “But there was something very clever and elegant about the principles governing genetics.”

Bissan didn’t realise until she went to university that her two passions were actually a field of research. She fell in love with computational biology at first sight. But computing was a subject mainly studied by young men.

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

“But I didn’t really notice the gender imbalance. I was lucky maybe, but I never felt being a woman caused me any issues at all.”

Developing her passion to fight cancer

Following her years at university, Bissan knew the thing she loved the most was ‘Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence’ – teaching computers to learn.

“You can ‘teach’ a computer by giving it examples to learn patterns, and then 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 develop computing to help drive cancer drug discovery.

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

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

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

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

“Because these areas of science are quite separate, the next big challenge was to figure out how to make the data ‘talk the same language’.”

But through hard work and a great team, canSAR has been a big success and is now helping scientists home in on exciting molecules that could be targeted with drugs. Although it was initially designed for the drug discovery unit at The Institute of Cancer Research, it’s become something much bigger.

“Although we’re one of the world’s most successful non-commercial drug discovery unit, we can’t possibly investigate all leads,” says Bissan. “Beating cancer will be a global effort, so we made canSAR openly available to researchers around the world.”

We’re supporting the development of canSAR into an international free 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 powerful tool for drug discovery everywhere.

The next project – personalising medicine

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

Computing could piece together all sorts of data from scans, blood tests, genetic tests, medical records, even from devices that monitor things like sleep patterns

– Dr Bissan Al-Lazikani

Using a new Big Data platform being developed at The Institute of Cancer Research, supported by CRUK funding, Bissan is using artificial intelligence to pull together lots of information about a patient to try and predict what treatment, or combination of treatments, their cancer will respond best to.

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

“Computing could piece together all sorts of data from scans, blood tests, genetic tests, medical records, even from devices that monitor things like sleep patterns.”

The project is still in its early stages of development, collecting research data from the lab and patient data to ‘train’ the system and see if it works. The first big milestone will be testing the drug combinations predicted by the programme on a small sample of a patient’s tumour to see if it works.

“The goal is to one day be able to integrate all the data we can get from patients and their cancer to predict the therapy that will be the most effective but cause the fewest possible side effects,” she adds.

A golden future for computational science

With the potential for computing and artificial intelligence to play a large role in both research and clinical cancer care, there’s a clear need for skilled computational biologists.

And Bissan has advice for women considering it as a career choice.

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

Bissan loves what she does. And she’s one of many shining examples of why we should celebrate women’s achievements in science on Ada Lovelace day.

“Never be afraid to ask for help, but be like Ada – value yourself and your ideas. I personally have benefitted from having excellent and supportive mentors, both male and female, throughout my career.

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