A Skolkovo Foundation resident scientist is embarking on a joint research project into cardiovascular disease together with British scientists after the team won a grant issued by the British Council as part of the U.K.-Russia Year of Science and Education 2017 programme. 

Dmitry Alexeev, the project's leader on the Russian side and head of Skolkovo startup Knomics. Photo: Sk.ru.

The grant was awarded to a joint team representing the University of Novosibirsk and the University of Edinburgh for their project to develop a system for predicting cardiovascular disease. The Russian side is headed by Dmitry Alexeev, CEO of Skolkovo resident biotech startup Knomics.

“Our main goal is to create a data analysis system that would finally produce a way to make cardiovascular disease research better,” says Alexeev.  

The international team of scientists won a grant for £200,000 to conduct the research under a two-year programme, which began this month. Last week, the project stakeholders met at the Skolkovo Technopark to discuss their plans.

“Its [the project’s] real aim is to take new so-called integrative methods – methods that are integrating different types of data and analysis – and bring them together into one new complicated approach to try and disentangle the underlying biology of cardiovascular disease,” says Jim Wilson, a professor of human genetics at the University of Edinburgh who is leading the research on the British side.

Part of that work is identifying biomarkers: molecules that can be measured in blood and that are predictive of certain conditions or illnesses, in this case, heart attacks or strokes or other cardiovascular events.

“While there are predictors – like do you smoke, do you eat loads of fatty food, do you take no exercise, all the usual sorts of things – they are imperfect,” says Wilson. He and Alexeev are certain that the field of omics – the collective characterization of molecules in an organism and how they interact – is the key to a better understanding of heart disease, and the ability to predict it.

“All these molecules have always been flowing around our blood, but we couldn’t measure them until relatively recently, so this so-called omics – this measuring of hundreds of metabolites or proteins, or whatever is being measured – is very new,” says Wilson. “This is a revolution that’s ongoing right now in medicine and biology.”

The project will study and compare metabolites (substances formed in or needed for metabolism) collected by Wilson’s team in the Orkney Islands, and by the biomed company Atlas, of which Alexeev is the R&D director, in Russia.

Jim Wilson, a professor of genetics at the University of Edinburgh and the project's U.K. leader. Photo: Sk.ru

Siberia to Scotland

The project came about thanks to Yurii Aulchenko, head of the Theoretical and Applied Functional Genomics lab at Novosibirsk State University, where Alexeev is a leading researcher.

“I heard about a year ago that there would be an institutional links programme grant from the British Council in honour of the U.K.-Russia Year of Science, and I thought of Jim straight away,” Aulchenko told Sk.ru, adding that he had known Wilson since 2003. He put Alexeev and Wilson in touch, and together they submitted the winning grant proposal.

The Scottish-Siberian has invited other companies working in related fields to get involved in the project. Tuesday’s stakeholders’ meeting was attended by representatives of Gero, another Skolkovo resident startup, and Oleg Gusev, head of a joint lab between Russia’s Kazan Federal University (KFU) and Japan’s Riken research institute. The Moscow-based Gero sees aging as the root cause of many diseases, and is using statistical physics to identify regulators of aging, while Gusev, an expert in translational genomics, works on comparative genomics at the Riken Institute in Japan in cooperation with Russia. He has also studied hereditary cancer causes.

“We have a constant flow of requests from doctors in Tatarstan [where KFU is located] asking us to study that kind of thing, to get more insight into cardiovascular disease,” he told the meeting on Tuesday via Skype from Japan.  

The project stakeholders agreed Tuesday to support a bioinformatics summer camp for students that Alexeev is organising at the Skolkovo innovation centre, where his microbiome analysis startup Knomics is based.

Under the programme, programming students will be paid by the stakeholder companies to work on the British-Russian cardiovascular disease project at Knomics’ office in the Skolkovo Technopark for two months.

Yurii Aulchenko, head of the Theoretical and Applied Functional Genomics lab at Novosibirsk State University. Photo: Sk.ru.

Up to eight students will work on the project, said Alexeev.

“And then further on, when the study year begins, they will be able to continue to work with the selected companies that gave them the stipends. We work on a real project with them, and at the same time, we give back the company support for their scientific work. It’s also a good way to educate the students and bring them to Skolkovo: it’s an amazing place,” he added.

From lab to market

Alexeev also hopes that the joint university research project will result in new IT that can then be sold to research companies – with the stakeholder companies getting priority access to exclusively license it – in what he says would be a good example of getting university research onto the market.

“Guided by companies already operating on the market, they [the researchers] can get a better idea of what companies need. The companies will help us to produce the needed IT,” he said.

Right now, the ball in the U.K.-Russia match is in the Russian side’s court.

“We’re preparing the data now, and Jim in Edinburgh is doing biochemical analysis. We’ll get together with all the shareholders in Novosibirsk in September, and we’ll really work on the data using omics,” said Alexeev. His startup, Knomics, will carry out the microbiome research part of the project, funded by Atlas.

The joint research project is not Alexeev’s only venture in the U.K. this year. Knomics is currently in the process of merging with Atlas, a B2C genomics company that was one of the first to offer home genetic tests and that has opened a U.K. office.

“My home testing for the microbiome is already on the market in Russia [via Atlas], and the idea is that we will have this microbiome test in England as early as July,” said Alexeev.

Atlas is currently applying for residency status at the Skolkovo Foundation. Knomics will also be exhibiting at the Startup Bazaar at Skolkovo’s upcoming Startup Village.