August 28, 2020

2020 Gerstner Awards boost research in AI cancer algorithms, neurodegenerative diseases

By Susan Murphy

Veronique Belzil, Ph.D., assistant professor in Mayo Clinic’s Department of Neuroscience in Jacksonville, Fla., and Feichen Shen, Ph.D., assistant professor of Biomedical Informatics in Rochester, Minn., are this year's recipients of the Gerstner Family Career Development Awards. The competitive awards are presented annually by Mayo Clinic Center for Individualized Medicine to researchers who are early in their careers and conducting innovative investigations to predict, prevent, treat and cure disease using individualized medicine approaches.

The Gerstner Family Career Development Awards is a benefactor-sponsored initiative that seeks to promote a specialized workforce for individualized medicine discovery, translation and application. Made possible by a grant from the Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. Fund at Vanguard Charitable, the award provides important seed money for early-stage investigators interested in launching a career in individualized medicine.

Veronique Belzil, Ph.D.: Working to improve diagnosis and treatment of ALS and FTLD

Dr. Belzil is paving the way for improved diagnosis and treatment of two neurodegenerative diseases: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and frontotemporal lobar degeneration (FTLD).  

ALS and FTLD are both fatal conditions with no current treatment to prevent, decelerate or stop neuronal death in patients. A diagnosis of ALS or FTLD is devastating for patients and their loved ones, and is socially and economically detrimental for global health systems. ALS is the most common motor neuron disease, affecting 200,000 people annually worldwide, while FTLD is the second most prevalent early onset dementia after Alzheimer’s disease (AD). 

“While ALS and FTLD are clinically distinct, they show overlapping brain pathology and genetic factors,” Dr. Belzil says. “Their biology behind their shared and distinct brain circuits remains unknown, which prevents the identification of needed therapeutic targets.” 

To address this challenge, Dr. Belzil profiles alterations in the brains of patients with ALS and FTLD at the single-cell resolution. Such profiling can help bridge the gap between genetic variation and highly polygenic complex traits.

“Having lost a loved one to ALS, I’m driven by my desire to cure this devastating and fatal neurodegenerative condition,” Dr. Belzil says.

Dr. Belzil’s work has been instrumental in elucidating the contribution of genetics, epigenetics, and transcriptional variations to ALS. She hopes her findings lead to the identification of novel therapeutic targets and needed biomarkers for both ALS and FTLD.

Dr. Belzil began her postdoctoral training at Mayo Clinic in 2012, and became an assistant professor of Neuroscience in 2017. She currently leads translational studies for neurodegenerative diseases in the Department of Neuroscience and as a member of the Center for Individualized Medicine.

Feichen Shen, Ph.D.: Pioneering AI algorithms to treat cancer

Dr. Shen is working to accelerate the translation of cancer drug repurposing into clinical practice. He is developing a precision oncology drug repurposing framework that leverages artificial intelligence techniques.  Drug repurposing provides ways to identify new uses for approved drugs that are outside the scope of the original medical indication. 

“Cancer is responsible for millions of deaths worldwide every year, and although significant progress has been achieved in cancer medicine, many issues remain to be addressed for improving cancer therapy,” Dr. Shen says. “Drug repurposing provides ways to identify new uses for approved drugs that are outside the scope of the original medical indication.”

Dr. Shen says the Gerstner Award will allow him to continue his investigation in developing AI techniques to support the delivery of individualized medicine in practice, such as precision oncology.

“My long-term goal is to become a scientific leader in biomedical informatics with a focus on individualized medicine informatics.”

Dr. Shen began his postdoctoral training at Mayo Clinic in 2016 and became an assistant professor of Biomedical Informatics in 2019. He currently leads the investigation of precision medicine informatics in the Division of Digital Health Sciences of the Department of Health Sciences Research.

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Tags: #Gerstner Family Career Development Award, ALS, artificial intelligence, Cancer, education, Gerstner Family Foundation, Research, Uncategorized

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