Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : June 11th 2017 Contents 10 UWI TODAY – SUNDAY 11 JUNE, 2017
FACULTY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY RESEARCH SYMPOSIUM 2017
Sherry Ann Singh is a freelance writer.
PhD candidate Emilie Ramsahai envisions a day when a
company in Trinidad and Tobago develops medicinal drugs
to compete in the global pharmaceutical industry.
Undaunted by the influence and might of Big Pharma,
she muses on the possibility of a thriving industry in “made
in Trinidad & Tobago” branded pharmaceuticals existing
alongside the industry behemoths dominating this trillion-
In April, Emilie’s current research in this area thrust her
into the spotlight at the Faculty of Science & Technology’s
Annual Research Symposium 2017. She took the Head
of Department Award for Best Oral Presentation for the
Department of Mathematics and Statistics for her study
on “The use of gene interaction networks to improve the
identification of cancer driver genes.”
As proud as the PhD in Statistics student is of that
achievement, she has her eyes set on a bigger prize – one day
being part of a super-team of Trinidad and Tobago-based
medicinal drugs developers.
“A lot of our drugs are imported and then re-sold, but
there’s no reason we cannot develop our own industry right
here. It is very possible,” she pronounced, matter-of-factly.
Her insight comes from specializing in Bioinformatics:
a cross-disciplinary field combining Statistics, Computer
Science and Bio Chemistry. Emilie’s PhD in Statistics would
complement her first degree in Mathematics and Masters
in Computer Science, which combine well for a career in
With genome sequencing, Bioinformatics has become
mainstream internationally and is now a budding field of
study at The UWI. Due to its cross-disciplinary nature,
collaboration with teams of specialists in different fields is
unavoidable. This could lead organically to the creation of a
research team involved in developing pharmaceutical drugs
within the borders of Trinidad and Tobago.
While Big Pharma is motivated primarily by economic
interests, Emilie’s passion for pharmaceuticals is rooted
in a love of research, along with a desire to meaningfully
These twin forces inspired the research on cancer
drivers presented at the Symposium.
“ The significance of this research is its potential to
improve the quality of cancer treatment, drug development
and personalized care. It can impact lives and health care in
general for cancer patients.”
At present, cancer treatment revolves around
chemotherapy and surgery – both traumatic experiences.
Explaining how Bioinformatics can improve cancer
care and the quality of lives, Emilie said her research
employed different strategies to distinguish cancer driver
genes from passenger genes. Her team investigated the
benefit of combining data from three different sources on
Emilie’s peer-reviewed research was published jointly with
Kheston Walkins, PhD student in Molecular Genetics, and the
the prediction outcome of cancer driver genes. This resulted
in an enriched dataset, which increased its accuracy by 17%
and 28%, respectively. The study identified 33 new candidate
“Our study highlights the potential of combining
networks and weighting edges to provide greater accuracy
in the identification of cancer driver genes,” she said.
“An understanding of mutated genes that drive the
formation of cancer is important in the discovery of new
drugs and the recommendation of targeted treatment
regimes for patients,” she said.
“This research is actually looking to improve the quality
of life and type of treatments, possible drug targets and
alternative ways of treating cancer. It is mainstream in terms
of providing a different way to treat cancer.”
Emilie’s peer-reviewed research was published jointly
with Kheston Walkins, PhD student in Molecular Genetics;
primary supervisor, Dr. Vrijesh Tripathi of the Department
of Mathematics; and co-supervisor Dr. Melford John, of the
Department of Preclinical Sciences in PeerJ – an award-
winning biological and medical sciences journal. She also
acknowledged the support of Dr. Rajini Haraksingh from
the Department of Life Sciences for allowing her work to
be presented at the Symposium.
Amid rising incidents of lifestyle and other diseases
in Trinidad and Tobago, her long-term goal is to head a
research group focused on drug development for different
diseases, based on genomics.
“At the moment we are using publicly available data but
if we’re doing something with data specific to Trinidad and
Tobago we would need to obtain funding... I am looking for
a research group for drug development for not only cancer
but other diseases. A lot of the current work can be done
with other diseases.”
Emilie’s advice to those contemplating a career in this
field is to embrace collaboration and be willing to acquire
new knowledge. Many researchers are unwilling to step
outside of their areas of expertise, deterred by the steep
learning curve required and the difficulty of collaborating
“No one coming into this field would be a specialist
in the three areas and therefore working with others is
essential,” she said.
Emilie implored anyone interested in Bioinformatics –
students and medicinal drug industry developers alike - to
contact her to explore potential research collaborations.
“There’s a tremendous opportunity for the different
disciplines to come together,” she said. “Working together we
can have a significant impact, although the rewards would
not be immediate. At this stage, we need the investment.
The rewards will come in the long term.”
PhD candidate Emilie Ramsahai says, “This research is actually
looking to improve the quality of life and type of treatments,
possible drug targets and alternative ways of treating cancer.
PHOTOS: ATIBA CUDJOE
BY SHERRY ANN SINGH
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