Alexey A. Leontovich, Ph.D.

Photo of Alexey A. Leontovich, Ph.D.

"The human brain cannot analyze the whole complexity of DNA; only clever software can do that."

Using bioinformatics to help skin cancer patients

Students in the software applications classes of Alexey Leontovich, Ph.D., probably have little idea he once studied arctic foxes and sea corals in northern Russia. It was his fieldwork in the Arctic — and later studying biochemistry through the University of California, Irvine and the University of Kansas Medical Center — that made him realize the future lay in bioinformatics.

"Polar foxes build dens," says Dr. Leontovich. "Beavers build dams. Who taught them the architecture and right place to build them? All the scientific methods I've used still did not explain things like this. The human brain cannot analyze the whole complexity of DNA; only clever software can do that. Bioinformatics is the answer because you can design software to deal with the complexity and ambiguity."

Dr. Leontovich believed in the power of bioinformatics so much that, although he already had his Ph.D. in developmental biology, he went back to school for a bachelor's degree in computer science at Winona State University.

In addition to teaching bioinformatics classes on the basics of high-throughput technology and hands-on software tutorials through the Center for Translational Science Activities, Dr. Leontovich has created an online catalog of lectures and software tutorials. He also offers consulting services. One of the physician-investigators with whom he consults, Svetomir Markovic, M.D., Ph.D., is a hematologist who studies skin cancer. Dr. Markovic is investigating how tumors escape detection by the body's immune system by measuring the presence of proteins, called cytokines, in the bloodstream. Such measurements are useful in developing more effective chemotherapy regimens for skin cancer patients. "We hope the information we generate helps save cancer patients," Dr. Leontovich says.

Dr. Leontovich is applying for a patent on the software he's developed in this quest. He's also working with a private university in Chicago and Harvard to study the genetic mechanism of Parkinson's disease.

He's curious to see how the field will develop in the next few decades now that more students are being trained specifically in bioinformatics. "I'm jealous of them. There are some very impressive students coming."

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