A researcher who works with the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) and the university of Ghent has been awarded a research grant of €110,000 by the foundation run by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan.
Professor Yvan Saeys has developed a software that analyses individual cells. He is currently cooperating with pharmaceutical companies in a search for applications of the technology.
“We have developed software that can research large amounts of biomedical data at the ‘single cell’ level and thus help uncover patterns in cell development,” said Prof Saeys.
The research is advanced, but at the same time relatively simple.
“Think of the example of different types of leukaemia, a type of blood cancer in which there is something lacking in the development of cells, so that they follow an abnormal development path. With our technology, you can get a better view of that abnormal cell development and the possible causes of a condition, so that you can develop more targeted therapies.”
Another possible application is in stem cell research. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells which have not yet been programmed to be the type of cell they will become – brain cell, skin cell, blood cell and so on.
“We know that stem cells are a constant source of blood cells, but we do not yet know exactly how that process works,” he said. “With software like ours, you can view and understand such cell development in more detail.”
One of the most important aspects of the software is that it is open source, which means anyone can take the code and use it in different ways. That allows the technology to be shared with other researchers and pharmaceutical companies carrying out their own research.
And as others learn and use the software, they are able to report back to him any bugs or improvements they may come across.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) was founded by the couple in 2015, and describes itself as “a new kind of philanthropy that’s leveraging technology to help solve some of the world’s toughest challenges — from eradicating disease, to improving education, to reforming the criminal justice system.”
The fund had $3.8 million to give away to a total of 23 open source software projects.
“Hundreds of thousands of scientists each day use open source software to carry out their research,” said CZI head of science Cori Bargmann. “Scientists deserve better tools, and we’re helping to meet that need by supporting open source projects that will advance biomedical science and foster greater access to critical software.”