Brock’s new Canada Research Chair improving health with technology

When computer science meets biology, unknown details about human health come to light.

Yifeng Li is an expert in bioinformatics, an emerging area of study in which software tools and methods are used to reveal patterns embedded in complex, large biological data sets.

“These patterns help us discover the hidden information we need to create solutions that will address diseases and other challenges in human biology,” says the Brock University Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Biological Sciences.

Li’s research focuses largely on harnessing artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to develop, or refine, drugs to treat cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, among other conditions, and reduce the drugs’ negative side effects.

He was one of 176 researchers across the country announced as new and renewed Canada Research Chairs (CRC) on Wednesday, Nov. 16 by federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry François-Philippe Champagne.

Li is now Tier 2 CRC in Machine Learning for Biomedical Data Science. Also included in the announcement was the renewal of Brock Associate Professor Julia Baird’s CRC in Human Dimensions of Water Resources and Water Resilience.

Supporting Li’s research is a $139,302 grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s John R. Evans Leaders Fund (JELF), which Li plans to use to set up Brock’s Biomedical Data Science Laboratory.

The lab’s equipment will include a high-performance multi-GPU server and a data storage server for large-scale biomedical data processing and analytics.

“The lab is expected to build research leadership and become a data science innovation hub to connect and collaborate with regional innovators from the University, community, industry and government,” says Li.

With computer technology, Li and his team create algorithms that separate out and group together objects such as microscopic cells, DNA strands and proteins from raw medical images and other samples.

The computer technology can then do a deep dive into how these groups of objects interact with one another, producing insights in an efficient, timely manner beyond the scope of human efforts, says Li.

“With biomedical images, for example, it would take too much time for humans to segment out cells from a big image,” says Li. “If you’re the person in the lab and are given 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 within a data set and then fulfil all required objectives, with the goal of improving and streamlining drug design.”

In the case of drug development, the algorithms will help ensure the drug reaches the area of the body affected by disease and will have the desired effect.

Li and his team will also design new algorithms to fill in 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 B.C. Cancer Research Centre, the University of Ottawa and the National Research Council to design new anti-cancer drugs.

Other projects include developing drugs to combat COVID and hair loss.

“As a CRC, I hope, through research, to change our health, to make our community better and to equip students not only with knowledge and skills but also with guidance on how they pursue their own research path,” says Li.

“The federal government’s Canada Research Chairs program recognizes world-class researchers whose innovative work contribute to the betterment of Canadian society and beyond,” says Brock University Vice-President, Research Tim Kenyon.

“Dr. Li’s breakthrough work will advance the capacity of AI to support the health and well-being of all Canadians as well as contributing significantly to the development of the bioinformatics field.”

In addition to Li’s new position, Baird’s CRC has been renewed for another five years.

The Associate Professor is using her chair to enhance the understanding of how to effectively govern water resources and support long-term water sustainability, using resilience as her lens for this work.

Baird and Li are among 10 CRCs at Brock University. The University has a total of 14 CRC allocations.

The Canada Research Chairs Program invests up to $311 million per year to attract and retain some of the world’s most accomplished and promising minds. Chairholders aim to achieve research excellence in engineering and the natural sciences, health sciences, humanities and social sciences.

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