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No PhD, “No Fear”: Alice Zhang, 27, Aims Software At Neuro Diseases

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itching to turn their work into a company. To be that close and walk away? “I can’t think of anyone else who has done it,” says Eric Schadt, chair of the Department of Genetics and Genomics Sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai in New York. (He is on Verge’s scientific advisory board.)

Schadt echoes several other people in academia asked the same question. “Coming out with a PhD and a dissertation is usually the foundation of whatever you’ll do as an entrepreneur,” Schadt says. “But as this becomes more of an information game, it will become more like the tech side: catching that wave when it’s there, instead of finishing [the PhD] and jumping through hoops.”

(One now-famous case of a life-science dropout is Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of beleaguered blood-testing firm Theranos, who never finished her Stanford University undergraduate degree.)

To be sure, high tech and biotech are converging. Genes are being translated into zeroes and ones, rewritten like computer code, and turned back into the stuff of life. Verge advisor Church is stumping for perhaps the most ambitious and controversial example of this convergence yet, the creation of a synthetic human genome.

Meanwhile, our health data are increasingly in the cloud, sliced, diced, and analyzed, with everyone from national governments to insurance companies to drug companies down to individuals wanting to make sense of it.

The convergence is reflected in Valley phenomena like the Y Combinator program, now 11 years old, which provides aspiring tech entrepreneurs a sliver of seed capital and three months of mentoring. The program added biotech to its tech-heavy roster in 2014. Verge was a 2015 graduate.

Building upon software that Zhang brought out of UCLA—it’s in the public domain, no license necessary—Verge combs through genetic data to map out networks of genes and show which ones are being switched on or off in concert over the course of a neurodegenerative disease.

Verge also combines genetics with other data: patient age, gender, other health factors. The software aims to determine which genes are causing disease and which are responding to disease. It’s hard to tell with neurodegeneration, because many of the tissue samples that produce the genetic data are post mortem. The cells are dead, and their genes reflect the end of the disease progression.

For example, in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) it seems that about 150 genes are switched off in concert at any given time. This leads to death of motor neurons, which coordinate signals from the brain and pass them into the spinal cord and on into the muscles. People with ALS end up losing their muscle function, but not their intelligence, and typically die because they can no longer use their lungs. Verge thinks it has identified the key genes, known as the “master regulators,” that influence the rest of the network.

It’s akin to mapping out a social network (who are the people wielding the most influence?) or an airline network (which airports to keep humming and avoid system-wide delays?). The software has identified a few of these ALS “hubs” and matched them with FDA-approved drugs that should turn the network back on and prevent neurons from dying. The next step is to test those drugs’ effect in cells and animals models—and in some cases on human cells derived from ALS patients. (When asked about the key genes and drugs Verge has identified, Zhang declined to discuss further details.)

Finding new targets is a constant battle for drug developers. Verge isn’t the only company using genetic analysis to that end, but Zhang and her advisors say they’ve … Next Page »

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