Featured Interviews Synberc — 25 March 2014

Dr. John Sgouros is a consultant at Biomax and a leader in the field of bioinformatics. John, being a native to Greece, has been involved in the biology industry in Europe for quite some time. He attended university in Greece and expressed interest in physics and biology. When John wanted to decide what to focus on, his physics professor told him, “physics is great but the next breakthroughs in science in the coming century will be biology”; so John took his advice and so far it has proved to be true. John then went on to study at the Max Planck Institute in Germany where he obtained his PHD in protein chemistry.

John wasn’t always the biggest fan of biology, physics being his preference, until the boom of protein sequence discoveries in the early eighties. John was enthralled by biology at this time saying, “…That’s what I found a lot more fascinating because [protein chemistry] was information driven. So as you know when you are dealing with physics for instance everything is described in mathematical terms, and you develop a model, the model may or may not be very accurate, but at least you have a mathematical form…. as soon as the sequences started coming in I then realized there was a lot more to be gained from [biology] ”.  What really was a turning point for John, considering his involvement in biology, was the time he spent at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel as a summer student. He described the Weizmann Institute as a unique place where information was shared between different fields, allowing him to conduct in an effective scientific research environment.

After acquiring his PHD from the Max Planck Institute, John worked as a consultant for several laboratories working on the European Yeast Genome Sequencing Project.  “[His] job was to put it all together, coordinate the sequencing with the participating groups and so on.” This group at the Max Planck Institute gave rise to Biomax where he now works on business development and research in the UK.

Biomax began by developing genome annotation software called Pedant. The company then expanded into “knowledge management and semantic data integration, which enables seamless integration of very diverse databases, and the development of semantic data models to link all of them together”. This expansion provided system biologists a method in which they can discover experimental information from various sources, which ultimately helps researchers collect data on the entirety of the cell and all of its functions. More recently, Biomax has branched out semantic data integration software for health informatics. “The idea there was to integrate thousands of patient records, with thousands of parameters for patients, because these are chronic patients being monitored over very long periods of time; and then look for similarities and differences, develop methods for patients’ stratification, [and] predict therapeutic outcomes”. This technology is a strong start for the creation of personalized medicine and healthcare.

John works as an intermediate between business development and the biology side of the software Biomax is working on. On one side, he searches for potential clients in the UK area, and on the other side, “he gives client feedback to the research and development team” about sequence analysis and synthetic biology. John exclaims, “what’s happening at the moment, there is a convergence; we are seeing more and more pharmacogenetic data entering the medical profession, but at the same time there is also an emphasis on genomics through the analysis of the gut micro-bio, so I’m on the biological side there talking to… the software developers”.

Concerning the future of the industry John had nothing but a positive outlook. For instance, Biomax is developing a project based on semantic data integration software that would establish an informational connection between systems biology and synthetic biology. John went on to explain, “I think that synthetic biology will go more in the direction of the production of biologically, pharmaceutically, and medically important molecules, perhaps molecules that are too complex and expensive to synthesize using organic chemistry”, and that synthetic biology holds many answers to huge tribulations across the board. Biomax is in a unique position that it allows it access to the sequencing information, which it has established a plethora of, and collaborations with synthetic biology tool companies that need a database for organism information. “… For companies who decide to use synthetic biology as a new tool, it means that they also need to capitalize on know-how and data that they already have going back quite a few years…  if [they] want to make use of all this… without having to reinvent the wheel”.

John believes that as time progresses biology will be ‘democratized’, “that in the future, people will be able to design and perhaps even manufacture products that meet very specific needs which you cannot easily get on the market”. Just like with the recent invention of 3-D printers, that same technology will allow access to necessary biological materials at anyone’s fingertips.

John drew a parallel to the recent discoveries in biology, and its public negative appearance, to twenty years ago to the creation of the Internet. Due to his long experience in the industry is capable of seeing the same patterns occurring,“… There are certain major technologies that come along and turn everything upside down. And this applies both to discoveries and inventions like the web…. But I think there is a natural fear when it comes to tinkering with living organisms and also their biological information”. John exclaims that a stumbling block that the study of biology will have to overcome is convincing the public that synthetic biology and genetic engineering is the future. A future where “we can also gradually begin to move from disease therapy to disease avoidance, in other words, to be more proactive rather than reactive”. John believes that data driven personal medicine will be an important part of the future of the industry.

Aside from Biomax, John also studies the “mind-boggling” molecule RNA. RNA, in John’s words, is “ the conductor of the orchestra”. Having a full understanding and control of this molecule can unveil massive amount of information about biological systems that have yet to be discovered. So he works on RNA sequence analysis as a hobby in his spare time, constantly being fascinated by its functions.

One of the challenges John sees within microbiology is a lack of cooperation between different experts. What John wants is for specialists, within the realm of natural sciences, who are not focusing on microbiology, to become involved. “I was teaching at the bioinformatics at the University of London. And these people came in with degrees, some of them from the life sciences, but many had degrees in physics and mathematics. And it was interesting because they brought in a very different view of sequence analysis and biological systems. It was very refreshing”.

John Sgouros’ involvement with microbiology has put him in a unique position that has granted him a unique perspective on the past, the growth, and the future of the industry.

 

 

 

 

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Elan Meltzer

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