Did you get your smartphone swabbed for germs at Milken?
Some 1,000 conference attendees took part this week in this research project, led by Chris Mason, a metagenomicist at Weill Cornell Medicine. The microbial data gathered will help create the first global map to track hot spots of resistance to antibiotics, a growing threat that will likely kill more people than all cancers by 2050, according to Centers for Disease Control data presented at the conference.
Igor Tulchinsky, founder of the $5 billion hedge fund WorldQuant, is teaming up with Mason to accelerate research in the burgeoning fields of computational biomedicine and genomics. Researchers, armed with troves of new genetic data and the wizardry of artificial intelligence, are aiming for breakthroughs in everything from predicting the risk of cancer and treating it to forecasting the spread of pathogens around the globe.
The collaboration goes beyond the $5 million that Tulchinsky gave last year to support the research. WorldQuant has sent three data scientists to work in Mason’s lab, applying their algorithms, typically homed in on chasing profits, to metagenomic research.
“What intrigues me about data prediction is how it is changing the world,” Tulchinsky said in an email interview. “For predictive medicine, it is saving more lives. If I can make a difference in someone’s life, I want to do that. Applying our expertise to a biomedical research partnership is an extremely compelling opportunity.”
The results from Milken are already in: Mason’s team found 2,150 microbial species — bacteria, viruses and fungi — and 560 antibiotic resistance markers at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills. The data is part of a 3-year-old project that started with swabbing things people touch in New York City subways.
Researchers have gathered and analyzed the genetic makeup of thousands of germs across 55 cities on every continent. The mapping project, set to be completed in 2020, could inform health officials on everything from possible threats of pandemics to predicting new drugs to address the overuse of antibiotics.
“Our goal is to be able to predict where antibiotic resistance is moving and where it presents the most existential threat,” Mason said in an interview.
Tulchinsky, a computer scientist who founded New York-based WorldQuant in 2007, has been at the forefront of quantitative investing. The firm, which manages money for Millennium Management, has PhDs and other researchers in 15 countries using machine learning to comb through data for trading signals.
After a decade of running WorldQuant, Tulchinsky, 51, has sought to expand his reach beyond finance. He found an eager partner in Mason, a Yale-trained PhD with big ideas of his own. Mason, 39, has spoken publicly about the necessity and moral obligation for humans to colonize Mars in the coming centuries because the sun will eventually engulf the Earth, destroying all species. The two scientists became fast friends after meeting over lunch
a few years ago.
Tulchinsky is helping Mason’s lab on several fronts. Today, practitioners often struggle to accurately diagnose the cause of an infection by trying to culture it. So Mason’s lab seeks to genetically sequence and mine all DNA and RNA known to humanity, which would help diagnose infections in the future.
“Researchers will be able to determine the type of infection in a matter of seconds, rather than having to wait days trying to culture and identify it,” Mason said.
The WorldQuant scientists, who serve fellowships in Mason’s lab, have mined sequencing data to find new drugs. One fellow contributed to a paper that Mason expects will be published in a peer-review journal. He says the fellows possess a fearlessness, and as outsiders, they bring fresh perspectives and see new research approaches.
“When WorldQuant steps into one of our projects, it’s like adding rocket booster fuel,” Mason said.
What does WorldQuant get out of the deal? The fellows may learn new predictive methods at the lab to bring back to the hedge fund in a cross-fertilization between finance and medicine.
“Top talent is seeking employment that engages them beyond core expertise,” Tulchinsky said. “Participation in our program has tremendous interest.”
Photo: Dania Maxwell/Bloomberg