Probing medicine's latest frontier
By Roberta Staley
The 20th century saw great advances in the treatment of disease. Antibiotics and antiviral remedies healed virulent infections, while old scourges like diabetes and cancer were controlled with new therapies.
However, cure rates for such diseases have proved disappointing, while bacteria and viruses have developed resistance to antibiotics and antiviral regimens, threatening to shift the balance of power back in favour of these microorganisms.
As pathogens evolve, so do the tools of research—as well as the scope of research itself.
“The field of biology is changing very fast due to the amount of data,” says Fereydoun Hormozdiari, who receives this year’s Governor General’s Gold Medal, achieving a GPA of 4.17 out of a possible 4.33 in his computer science PhD studies.
Hormozdiari first came to SFU from Iran to begin a master’s degree in computer science, later joining the computational biology laboratory. Computational biology is an interdisciplinary study that combines computer science and applied mathematics to find solutions to complex biological problems.
It is the latest frontier of medicine, says Hormozdiari, who uses computational strategies to devise algorithms that crunch massive amounts of data in seconds, replacing laborious laboratory experiments. For example, Hormozdiari identified new multi-target drugs that could kill bacteria resistant to conventional therapies using such strategies. Computational biology also explores the human genome and genetics—the ultimate goal being the discovery of solutions to health challenges like cancer.
While at SFU, Hormozdiari, who’s now doing post-doctoral work at the University of Washington in Seattle, became part of the 1000 Genomes Project. The international collaboration is creating a public catalogue of human genetic variation from 25 diverse populations around the world.
Hormozdiari has further narrowed his studies by focusing on the mental disorder autism. By identifying anomalies in the genome specific to autism, he says, “scientists hopefully will be able to understand the cause of the disease and one day find a cure.”