by the numbers

Houston data science company expands pandemic-inspired research tool

Mercury Data Science has taken a tool it originally developed for COVID-19 research and applied it into new areas of research and innovation. Photo via Getty Images

Last fall, Houston-based Mercury Data Science released an AI-driven app designed to help researchers unlock COVID-19-related information tucked into biomedical literature. The app simplified access to data about subjects like genes, proteins, drugs, and diseases.

Now, a year into the coronavirus pandemic, Mercury Data Science is applying this technology to areas like agricultural biotech, cancer therapeutics, and neuroscience. It's an innovation that arose from the pandemic but that promises broader, long-lasting benefits.

Angela Holmes, chief operating officer of Mercury Data Science, says the platform relies on an AI concept known as natural language processing (NLP) to mine scientific literature and deliver real-time results to researchers.

"We developed this NLP platform as a publicly available app to enable scientists to efficiently discover biological relationships contained in COVID research publications," Holmes says.

The platform:

  • Contains dictionaries with synonyms to identify things like genes and proteins that may go by various names in scientific literature.
  • Produces data visualizations of relationships among various biological functions.
  • Summarizes the most important data points on a given topic from an array of publications.
  • Depends on data architecture to automate how data is retrieved and processed.

In agricultural biotech, the platform enables researchers to sift through literature to dig up data about plant genetics, Holmes says. The lack of gene-naming standards in the world of plants complicates efforts to search data about plant genetics, she says.


Angela Holmes is the COO of MDS. Photo via mercuryds.com


The platform's ability to easily ferret out information about plant genetics "allows companies seeking gene-editing targets to make crops more nutritious and more sustainable as the climate changes to have a rapid way to de-risk their genomic analyses by quickly assessing what is already known versus what is unknown," Holmes says.

The platform allowed one of Mercury Data Science's agricultural biotech customers to comb through scientific literature about plant genetics to support targeted gene editing in a bid to improve crop yields.

In the field of cancer therapeutics and other areas of pharmaceuticals, the platform helps prioritize drug candidates, Holmes says. One of Mercury Data Science's customers used the platform to extract data from about 2 terabytes (or 2 trillion bytes) of information to evaluate drug candidates. The information included drug studies, clinical trials, and patents. Armed with that data, Mercury Data Science's cancer therapy client signed agreements with new pharmaceutical partners.

The platform also applies to the hunt for biomarkers in neuroscience, including disorders such as depression, anxiety, autism and multiple sclerosis. Data delivered through the platform helps bring new neurobehavioral therapeutics to market, Holmes says.

"An NLP platform to automatically process newly published literature for more insight on the search for digital biomarkers represents a great opportunity to accelerate research in this area," she says.

Mercury Data Science has experience in the field of digital biomarkers, including work for one customer to develop a voice and video platform to improve insights into patients with depression and anxiety in order to improve treatment of those conditions.

The new platform — initially developed as a tool to combat COVID-19 — falls under the startup's vast umbrella of artificial intelligence and data science. Founded in 2017, Mercury Data Science emerged because portfolio companies of the Houston-based Mercury Fund were seeking to get a better handle on AI and data science.

Last April, Angela Wilkins, founder, co-CEO and chief technology officer of Mercury Data Science, left the company to lead Rice University's Ken Kennedy Institute. Dan Watkins, co-founder and managing director of the Mercury Fund, remains at Mercury Data Science as CEO.

The Ken Kennedy Institute fosters collaborations in computing and data. Wilkins replaced Jan Odegard as executive director of the institute. Odegard now is senior director of industry and academic partnerships at The Ion, the Rice-led innovation hub.

Wilkins "is an academic at heart with considerable experience working with faculty and students, and an entrepreneur who has helped build a successful technology company," Lydia Kavraki, director of the Ken Kennedy Institute, said in a news release announcing Wilkins' new role. "Over her career, Angela has worked on data and computing problems in a number of disciplines, including engineering, life sciences, health care, agriculture, policy, technology, and energy."

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Building Houston

 
 

Dr. Peter Hotez and Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi have been recognized by Fast Company for their leadership in developing low-cost COVID vaccine. Photo courtesy of Texas Children's

This week, Fast Company announced its 14th annual list of Most Creative People in Business — and two notable Houstonians made the cut.

Dr. Peter Hotez and his fellow dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, were named among the list for “open sourcing a COVID-19 Vaccine for the rest of the world.” The list, which recognizes individuals making a cultural impact via bold achievements in their field, is made up of influential leaders in business.

Hotez and Bottazzi are also co-directors for the Texas Children's Hospital's Center for Vaccine Development -one of the most cutting-edge vaccine development centers in the world. For the past two decades it has acquired an international reputation as a non-profit Product Development Partnership (PDP), advancing vaccines for poverty-related neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) and emerging infectious diseases of pandemic importance. One of their most notable achievements is the development of a vaccine technology leading to CORBEVAX, a traditional, recombinant protein-based COVID-19 vaccine.

"It's an honor to be recognized not only for our team's scientific efforts to develop and test low cost-effective vaccines for global health, but also for innovation in sustainable financing that goes beyond the traditional pharma business model," says Hotez in a statement.

The technology was created and engineered by Texas Children's Center for Vaccine Development specifically to combat the worldwide problem of vaccine access and availability. Biological E Limited (BE) developed, produced and tested CORBEVAX in India where over 60 million children have been vaccinated so far.

Earlier this year, the doctors were nominated for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize for their research and vaccine development of the vaccine. Its low cost, ease of production and distribution, safety, and acceptance make it well suited for addressing global vaccine inequity.

"We appreciate the recognition of our efforts to begin the long road to 'decolonize' the vaccine development ecosystem and make it more equitable. We hope that CORBEVAX becomes one of a pipeline of new vaccines developed against many neglected and emerging infections that adversely affect global public health," says Bottazzi in the news release from Texas Children's.

Fast Company editors and writers research candidates for the list throughout the year, scouting every business sector, including technology, medicine, engineering, marketing, entertainment, design, and social good. You can see the complete list here

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