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‘Engage the incredible’
Genomics. It’s probably not something you’d casually think of, unless you’re a molecular biologist.
But genomics, combined with informatics, has the potential to revolutionise health care. And one young man from T&T is already doing some notable things in medical technology drawing from these fields. His name is Kheston Walkins.
Walkins is from Chaguanas, and grew up in a mixed neighbourhood in central Trinidad. He recalls that when he was a boy, his mother would make and sell cakes to help sustain the family—so these days, he jokes, he doesn’t like cake.
Though his initial tertiary education was in biology (he studied medical neuroscience for his first BSc degree at the University of Sussex, in Brighton, UK), he’s also taught himself some coding, he likes graphic design, and he has applied these skills to create computer user interfaces. He continues to be very interested in the brain and behaviour, as well as health technologies.
Today, Walkins is a PhD candidate in Molecular Genetics at UWI, focussing on bioinformatics, and guided by his PhD supervisor Dr Melford John, he is developing technology for data-driven cancer identification, which may give doctors another tool to help them make speedy diagnoses. That is a big deal— because it may radically reduce wait times for diagnoses for many types of common cancers.
Walkins, under his supervisor’s guidance, has written code (in the Python programming language) to teach the computer how to use specific gene features in order to classify a cancer sample. This system has learned from a bank of cancer samples, says Walkins, to better classify any new samples put before it.
The algorithm by Walkins, guided by John, is able to distinguish between 13 different types of cancer at over 80 per cent accuracy; and nine of these at 100 per cent accuracy. The UWI researchers repeated this process six times, with similar results. Many of these cancers are among the most common cancers in the world—cancers of the lung, colon, kidney, endometrium, and even leukemias.
“The algorithm that we wrote can do the classifications in a fraction of a second—in 6.67 milliseconds. Typically to get results from a sample, best case scenario in the US, it takes about two days. In that same time, a computational method like ours can classify (or process) as many as 26 million samples,” said Walkins in his October 2016 TEDx talk at Queen’s Hall, Port-of-Spain (now on YouTube).
It’s a remarkable breakthrough, and a great example of how computer science married to genomics can come up with new tools and approaches to advance medicine—in this case, through an analysis of the molecular basis of some diseases.
Last year was a busy time for Walkins. In addition to his academic research, in February 2016 he attended the Young Leaders of the America’s Initiative (YLAI) Pilot, hosted by the United States State Department. It was an initiative of former US president Barack Obama to help build links among entrepreneurs and civil society leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean, and empower them with some training, networks and resources.
The 24 fellows in that pilot programme spent two weeks working at skill-based business incubator organisations in Miami, Florida; Charlotte, North Carolina; Denver, Colorado; and Seattle, Washington. There they learned about business development projects, financial models, and tech-oriented projects; engaged with customers; and attended staff meetings, CEO roundtables, and public events.
Walkins said the experience was an invaluable one for him, helping him network with many other entrepreneurs, notably from South America — as a result of which, he’s now learning Spanish, to better communicate with potential business partners and colleagues further south.
On November 15-16, 2016, Walkins also participated in Demand Solutions in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Demand Solutions is an entrepreneurship expo funded by the Inter-American Development Bank, where inspiring speakers, entrepreneurs and innovators are selected by the organisers to share innovative products and solutions, and meet potential investors and other business contacts. Walkins was one of only 14 people accepted to participate at the last Demand Solutions event, and says he left with some invaluable contacts from South America, especially from Colombia.
Walkins also founded his own firm, Raiora Data Services Ltd, to produce digital publishing and marketing solutions; soon, he says, it will also be producing medical technology. The firm has already produced interactive projects for Schlumberger, Nestlé and other local organisations.
Helping patients communicate
Walkins is involved in other projects, notably a web and mobile app called Communicare which can help stroke patients and speech-impaired people communicate better with their caregivers, whether these be family members at home or healthcare staff in a hospital. He started building the app in 2016 after an acquaintance died from complications brought on by a stroke. He commented that though we don’t know how many stroke patients T&T has in a year, worldwide the annual number is 15 million.
The Communicare app uses interactive computer/tablet screens with easy-to-use graphic illustrations and symbols that can be selected by a patient’s eye contact alone. This means that a stroke patient who cannot talk, for instance, but whose brain is working normally, can look at a symbol of a glass of water on screen, select it with the help of eye detection software, and in this way, automatically signal to his caregiver (via an app) that he wants some water.
The caregiver will also be able to use the system to keep track of other things—medicines given, meals delivered, and so on—so that Communicare can potentially become a useful health-tech care tool.
Already, a government agency in Curacao has expressed interest in investing in the Communicare technology, said Walkins, who presented it at the Curacao Investment and Export Promotion Agency (Cinex) last November.
‘Never be afraid to learn’
In his down time, Walkins plays the harp to take a break from all the science. And he seems always ready to motivate young people to find the best in themselves and push for excellence in whatever fields they may be working in.
Kheston is passionate about encouraging young people to believe in their own potential. “We can make awesome things, and to a global standard. We don’t need an external company to do it: we can start as innovators on the ground,” he told the Guardian last week.
He reflected on his own experience of having to teach himself a coding language even though his background was in biology: “We shouldn’t think it difficult just because it’s something we have not done before. I think we should be very willing to engage with new things, because they can allow for great opportunities.”
He expressed similar sentiments in his TEDx talk last October, which urged people in T&T and the region to create their own technologies—“engage the incredible”—rather than waiting on “First World” countries to do it all:
“We have innovators of global renown, like Peter Minshall in the arts—who’s aced the creative direction for four Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. And others like Prof John Agard—who’s done incredible work in carbon sequestration and carbon emissions monitoring in T&T. ...When I see this, this is what drives me, because it’s evidence that we’re smart, intelligent and have a healthy ambition to affect the world. We are people who can dream big—and make big.”
What is genomics?
Kheston Walkins TEDx talk: http://tedxportofspain.com/portfolio/kheston-walkins/
Kheston Walkins tech firm Raiora: http://www.raiora.com/
Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative: https://ylai.state.gov/
Inter-American Development Bank—Demand Solutions, Buenos Aires. Nov 15-16, 2016: http://www.iadb.org/es/eventos/idear-soluciones/2016/startups-argentina,...
Genomics is the branch of molecular biology focussing on genomes—their structure, function, evolution, and mapping. Your genome is the instructions for making and maintaining you. All living things have a genome; plants, bacteria, viruses and animals. It is written in a chemical code called DNA.
DNA (deoxyribose nucleic acid) is a long molecule. It has a twisted, double helix shape. DNA is made up of four different chemicals, or bases, represented by the letters A, T, C and G.
Your genome is all 3.2 billion letters of your DNA. It contains around 20,000 genes. Genes are the instructions for making the proteins our bodies are built of—from the keratin in hair and fingernails to the antibody proteins that fight infection.
Sequencing is a technique that is used to “read” DNA. It finds the order of the letters of DNA, one by one. Learning more about genomes can help us to identify the cause of genetic diseases. In cancer, for instance, the tumour cells have developed a different genome from the healthy cells. Comparing the normal and cancer genomes may give clues about ways to treat the cancer.
Informatics is the study and practice of creating, storing, finding, manipulating and sharing information. Through this process, scientists can turn information into actionable knowledge. (Wikipedia)
Genomic medicine aims to revolutionise healthcare by applying our growing understanding of the molecular basis of disease. Research involves huge amounts data. To create knowledge from such data, researchers must integrate these large and diverse data sets—presenting daunting informatics challenges. There are many potential implications of genomic medicine for healthcare, including: individualised healthcare based on genetics, predictive methods for disease susceptibility, new drug targets for currently untreatable diseases, gene therapy, and genetic/molecular epidemiology which will aid in the study of pathogen transmission and disease profiles of different populations. (Data Integration and Genomic Medicine, Journal of Biomedical Informatics, Volume 40, Issue 1, February 2007, www.sciencedirect.com)
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