When computer science meets biology, unknown details about human health come to light.
Yifeng Li is an expert in bioinformatics, an emerging field of study that uses software tools and methods to uncover patterns embedded in complex, large biological data sets.
“These patterns help us uncover the hidden information we need to design solutions that address disease and other challenges in human biology,” says the Brock University assistant professor of computer and life sciences.
Li’s research mainly focuses on using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to develop or refine drugs to treat cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, among others, and to reduce the negative side effects of the drugs.
Li was recently appointed Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Machine Learning for Biomedical Data Science. With news of his appointment came the renewal of Brock Associate Professor Julia Baird’s CRC in Human Dimensions of Water Resources and Water Resilience.
Li’s research is supported by a $139,302 grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s John R. Evans Leaders Fund (JELF), which Li plans to use to establish Brock’s Biomedical Data Science Laboratory.
The lab’s equipment includes a high-performance multi-GPU server and a data storage server for large-scale biomedical data processing and analysis.
“The lab is expected to build research leadership and become a hub for data science innovation to network and collaborate with regional innovators from the university, community, industry and government,” says Li.
Using computer technology, Li and his team are developing algorithms that separate and pool objects such as microscopic cells, strands of DNA, and proteins from raw medical images and other samples.
Computational technology can then delve deep into how these groups of objects interact and gain insights beyond the scope of human effort in an efficient and timely manner, Li says.
“With biomedical images, for example, it would take too long for humans to segment out cells from a large image,” says Li. “If you’re the person in the lab and you get 10,000 microscopic images, can you segment them all by hand?”
He says the algorithms he and his team are developing literally “teach” software to better understand the biological information in a dataset and then meet all the required goals, with the goal of improving and streamlining drug design.”
In drug development, the algorithms help ensure that the drug reaches the area of the body affected by the disease and has the desired effect.
Li and his team will also develop new algorithms to fill gaps in cases where there are too few images and other data for meaningful analysis.
The team, which includes 14 students, has a research partnership with the BC Cancer Research Centre, the University of Ottawa and the National Research Council to develop new cancer drugs.
Other projects include developing drugs to fight COVID and hair loss.
“As a CRC, I hope to use research to transform our health, improve our community, and equip students not only with knowledge and skills but also with guidance on how to pursue their own research path,” says Li.
“The federal government’s Canada Research Chair program recognizes world-class researchers whose innovative work contributes to the betterment of Canadian society and beyond,” said Tim Kenyon, vice president for research at Brock University.
“DR. Li’s groundbreaking work will advance AI’s ability to support the health and well-being of all Canadians and make a significant contribution to the development of the field of bioinformatics.”
In addition to Li’s new position, Baird’s CRC was renewed for an additional five years.
The associate professor uses her chair to advance understanding of how to effectively manage water resources and support the long-term sustainability of water, using resilience as a lens for this work.
Baird and Li are among the 10 CRCs at Brock University. The university has a total of 14 SFB allocations.
The Canada Research Chairs Program invests up to $311 million annually to attract and retain some of the world’s most accomplished and promising minds. The chair holders strive for scientific excellence in engineering and natural sciences, health sciences, humanities and social sciences.