NSU Mathematics Graduate Awarded New Zealand Ministry of Business Grant

Alexander Gavryushkin, a graduate of NSU’s Department of Mechanics and Mathematics, Head of the Biological Data Science Lab at the University of Otago (New Zealand), and Doctor of Mathematical Sciences, was awarded one million New Zealand dollars for his project “Computing Platform for Phylogenetic Analysis of Somatic Evolution”. The funding came from the Endeavor Fund that is coordinated by the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment (MBIE). Gavryushkin’s project received the maximum award in the Smart Ideas category (great potential for creating advanced but risky technology with significant economic impact). 

The Endeavor Fund is one of the largest science foundations in New Zealand. The maximum grant size in the Research Programs section is virtually unlimited. The Fund finances breakthrough ideas, including in fundamental science, with great potential to have a significant impact on the country's economy in the future.

Gavryushkin described his work,

Currently, we have created a proof of concept - a mathematical model and its computer implementation for the reconstruction of the somatic evolution of cancer cells. Preliminary results show that our method has good potential for creating an application that can help oncologists more accurately determine the stage of cancer, the time and place of the disease’s initial appearance, the history of the development of metastases, and their number. This is a risky project with great potential that is exactly what MBIE Endeavor Smart Ideas want to finance. Within the framework of this project, we will be able to test the viability of our ideas quickly.

Phylogenetics (an area in the biological systematics field that identifies and clarifies the evolutionary relationships of life species on Earth) provides information that is especially important in the fields of evolution, ecology, infectology, etc. New sequencing technologies expand the scope of modern phylogenetics, adding to the list of disciplines developmental biology, somatic mutations, and oncology research using in agriculture, biotechnology, and biomedicine. The “Computational Platform for Phylogenetic Analysis of Somatic Evolution” Project will create the computing platform necessary to provide accurate and widely applicable molecular data analysis. New mathematical models will allow a more detailed study of the dynamics of the development of cancer. Modern algorithmic solutions, for example, online algorithms for the analysis of molecular data, will be applied to achieve this.

The Laboratory of Biological Data Science at the University of Otago works at the intersection of mathematics, computer science, and genomics. It is developing mathematical methods and algorithms for the analysis of molecular data. This and earlier grants are financing joint research with cancer specialists from the universities of Otago, Auckland, and the Australian National University.

Gavryushkin continued,

The prospects, like with any fundamental research project, are very difficult to predict. As I said, this is a project with great risk, but if everything that we plan is successful, then the benefits, in particular for oncology, will be huge. What I can say with certainty now is that people believe in us, it seems, even more than we believe in ourselves. When I presented the project before submitting it to the Ministry, we were interested in investors who are now considering the potential of the project from a commercial point of view. For me personally, this is an absolutely amazing opportunity to test an extremely bold idea and figure out a little better what mathematical and algorithmic problems arise when trying to answer fundamental biological questions. Finding these answers is impossible in the modern world without analyzing huge arrays of molecular date.

The researcher also noted that he and his colleagues are actively looking for young scientists, graduate students, and candidates of science who are capable and ready to work at the Laboratory on interdisciplinary projects.

In 2017, Gavryushkin received a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship grant from the Royal Society of New Zealand to create the Biological Data Science Laboratory at the University of Otago.