May 16, 2021

Idoia Ochoa or how to program algorithms to work with our DNA | Talent

That Idoia Ochoa (San Sebastián, 1985) is a woman of science comes from a very young age – “I was not going to study precisely literature,” he says by phone. She ended up getting a degree in Telecommunications, although, as she recognizes, she has not become an engineer by vocation. “I thought it was the race that opened the most doors for me, in which there was a bit of everything I liked, such as computer science and mathematics.” His passion for numbers, specifically the programming of algorithms that facilitate and standardize the processing of our DNA data, has earned him the appointment by MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) as one of the 35 most innovative young Europeans.

The same innovates with DNA than with RNA – as if it were something simple. The first contains the genetic information and the second gets the cells to understand it. What he has developed, the result of his six-hour average daily dedicated to research, are algorithms that allow concluding individual data on cancer, called genetic markers, which enable personalized medical treatments. “If you have patients with breast cancer and their sequenced DNA, you can see which genes are activated before the disease to determine which would be the best cancer treatment,” he reasons. Because, as he adds, there are genes affected in some people and not in others, even though the cancer is the same.

The Donostiarra researcher, mother of three daughters and renowned seriéfila – now hooked to Mad men Y Watchmen– concedes that the investment in genomics is called the fight against cancer, a trend that has no signs of changing and whose future lies in finding the valid drug for each patient, without falling into generality. He believes that there is still a lot of data to make a really qualitative leap, although we are already at a point where the propensity to suffer from a disease can be determined through DNA. “These technologies, these algorithms that learn automatically thanks to the machine Y deep learning, they can make the leap to other fields such as diabetes or Alzheimer’s to help customize treatments, ”he concludes.

One of the most mediatic examples of how digital tools have contributed to personalized medicine was that of Angelina Jolie in 2013. He voluntarily chose to undergo a double mastectomy after knowing that he was carrying a defective gene which increased the risk of breast cancer by 87% and ovarian cancer by 50%. This is the way, with an increasingly advanced technological innovation, which seeks to improve Ochoa. She lives happily surrounded by her programming languages ​​in C, Python and R. Living in the office of Professor of Tecnun-School of Engineers of the University of Navarra with her computer. Even so, it does not abandon the more traditional tools: “I also cannot separate myself from paper and pen to read articles.”

The incessant gender inequality

Ochoa, part of that minority percentage of women dedicated to technology and science, recognizes the large existing gender gap. He has never felt discriminated against, but his experience speaks for itself of the lack of equality. “In the United States – where it has developed the majority of research activity, between the universities of Stanford and Illinois – it is much worse than in Spain. In classes of 120 people, we would be four or five women, ”he says. It is clear that it is essential to make more relevant female examples visible to reach the necessary parity. “It has to be natural that there are women with positions of responsibility. If you grow up where a woman has a good position, you will think you can get there. You won’t even think about it, ”he predicts.

If gender inequality is a problem in science and technology, work files in a branch such as genomics are not in a very good place either. Ochoa points out that it was never very theoretical, but rather to apply all his knowledge to what he calls genomic things. One of his greatest achievements is the programming of algorithms to compress the files in which we keep the human genome. “At first it can weigh a terabyte. This is giant, hard to work and share! It costs more money to store it than to sequence it, which is now around one thousand euros, ”he says. He showed that, by gaining space, he cleaned and removed irrelevant information. “It’s like taking a picture in high quality and passing it to JPEG. You lose data, but this is imperceptible because the image is perfect ”, ditch.

The standardization of the archives has also become a workhorse for her. In his words, genomic researchers do not have a common pattern for working. The data is not represented in the same format. Obviously, it does not help to improve research. “It’s as simple as determining which one we use. As in the case of music, we have to opt for mp4, wma or aac ”, he compares while affirming that some of his algorithms serve to find this standard. He is optimistic about the resolution of this problem. It does not provide a specific date. If genomics wants to progress faster, it better arrive as soon as possible. Diseases do not understand deadlines.


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