Students use AI technology to find new brain tumor therapy targets — with a goal of fighting disease faster

Glioblastoma is one of the deadliest types of brain cancer, with the average patient living only eight months after diagnosis, according to the National Brain Tumor Society, a nonprofit. 

Two ambitious high school students — Andrea Olsen, 18, from Oslo, Norway, and Zachary Harpaz, 16, from Fort Lauderdale, Florida — are looking to change that. 

The teens partnered with Insilico Medicine, a Hong Kong-based medical technology company, to identify three new target genes linked to glioblastoma and aging. 

They used Insilico’s artificial intelligence platform, PandaOmics, to make the discovery — and now, they plan to continue researching ways to fight the disease with new drugs. 

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Their findings about target genes were published on April 26 in Aging, a peer-reviewed biomedical academic journal. 

A third high school student, Christopher Ren from Shanghai, China, also contributed to the research.

Olsen, who attends Sevenoaks School in the U.K., has been studying neuroscience since 2020.

She began an internship in 2021 with Insilico, where she learned to use AI to uncover new genetic targets to treat aging and cancer.

“It was there that I started this big investigation into glioblastoma and using AI to research it,” she told Fox News Digital in an interview.

Meanwhile, at Pine Crest High School in Fort Lauderdale, Harpaz — who had been focusing on computer science and biology — was looking to get into medical research

He chose to study glioblastoma in part because a childhood friend of his had the disease.

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“I saw how long studies like these take — in the lab, target discoveries can take five years — and I thought to myself, ‘There’s definitely a way to use artificial intelligence to speed up the study and also make an impact as a high schooler,’” he told Fox News Digital. 

Harpaz came across Insilico Medicine and reached out to the CEO, Dr. Alex Zhavoronkov, PhD, in Dubai — who connected him with Olsen.

The two students began collaborating on the glioblastoma project. Ultimately, they discovered the three new target brain tumor genes — CNGA3, GLUD1 and SIRT1. 

“Basically, a target is some driving factor for a cancer or a different disease, where if you can inhibit it or turn it on or off, you can stop the cancer growth and cure the disease,” Harpaz said.

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“That’s really awesome compared to a normal chemotherapy, where it attacks every fast-growing cell and is really damaging to other parts of the body other than the cancer.”

The teens presented their findings at the Aging Research and Drug Discovery (ARDD) conference in Copenhagen last fall.

(They’re not actually targeting brain tumors, but are locating things inside the tumors called “targets,” which are basically areas that the drugs would hone in on.) The students now plan to build on their findings with continued research into new drugs to fight the disease

Zhavoronkov, Insilico Medicine’s CEO, explained to Fox News Digital how the PandaOmics system uses generative AI to identify therapeutic targets associated with any given disease.

“It finds these new disease targets by analyzing trillions of data points, including human biological data and data from scientific publications, clinical trials and grant applications,” he said.

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“It scores the targets on factors like novelty (how unique is it?), druggability (can it be easily drugged?) and safety — so scientists know immediately which targets are best to pursue.”

Insilico has used the AI system to identify new targets for cancer, fibrosis, chronic kidney disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), among other diseases, Zhavoronkov said. 

The company also has 31 AI-designed drugs in the pipeline, including one for COVID-19 and another for pulmonary fibrosis.

To find the new therapeutic targets, the students used Insilico’s AI platform to screen data from the Gene Expression Omnibus, a repository of data that the National Center for Biotechnology Information in Bethesda, Maryland, maintains.

“It’s all about data,” Harpaz told Fox News Digital. “And I think that’s one of the most important uses for data — sharing diseases and making people’s lives better.” 

Glioblastoma is one of the diseases for which researchers have the least amount of data, said Olsen.

“That’s why it’s so hard to analyze and come up with new therapies,” she said. 

“Therefore, a really good call to action would be to get more patients to submit their medical information so that their genetic sequences can be analyzed to help prevent such diseases in the future.”

Cancer disproportionately affects older people. 

More than 50% of people who have cancer are 65 or older, according to data from the World Health Organization

That link inspired Olsen and Harpaz to focus their efforts on target genes for both aging and glioblastoma.

“Aging is the leading cause for tons of diseases like cancer,” Harpaz said. 

“As you age, your risk for cancer grows, along with many different diseases. So if we can figure out a way to prevent all the negative effects of aging and keep you in your prime as you age, that could prevent a lot of diseases and increase the quality of life in general.”

Insilico founder Zhavoronkov said he is optimistic that AI can transform nearly every facet of health care and medicine. 

That includes disease prediction, disease identification, target discovery and the development of new drugs, he said.

“In traditional drug discovery, it takes over 10 years and costs around $2 billion to bring one drug to market — and 90% of drug candidates fail during human trials,” he told Fox News Digital. 

“This high cost and slow speed is preventing new life-saving medications from reaching patients.”

AI is already used to help screen patients to identify diseases, to make predictions and to monitor progress, the doctor said. 

“Eventually, I expect AI to play a major role in advancing personalized medicine, in which treatments are tailored to a specific patient based on their individual profile,” he added.

Although he is optimistic about AI’s potential to improve the speed and quality of health care, Zhavoronkov recognizes that technology cannot replace humans’ contributions.

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“Even as AI can take on more tedious and repetitive work, allowing us to accelerate the pace of discovery, human scientists are essential,” he told Fox News Digital. 

“Humans are the real brains behind the machines.”

He also said, “There is a lot of fear and speculation about AI and robots replacing humans, but in reality, humans are harnessing the power of technology to do specific tasks more quickly and efficiently, just as we always have.”

“The only difference is that with AI, the level of complexity of the tasks it can accomplish has increased exponentially,” said Zhavoronkov.


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