From Genes to AI: Dr. Sahar Qazi’s bioinformatics solutions reshape healthcare in Kashmir

In a riveting revelation, Dr. Sahar Qazi, a Bioinformatician—born in Kashmir and raised in Delhi—unveils a groundbreaking vision for transforming healthcare in the region. Witnessing the exodus of Bioinformatics enthusiasts from the valley due to limited opportunities, Dr. Qazi advocates for the establishment of Bioinformatics as a standalone department in Kashmir universities. The urgency becomes apparent as she addresses the prevailing healthcare challenges, with breast cancer topping the list among women, necessitating transformative contributions through Bioinformatics integration.

Dr. Qazi details how Bioinformatics holds the key to revolutionizing healthcare in Kashmir. From Cancer Genomic Medicine for personalized treatment plans to AI-driven early detection systems, her work is poised to shape a healthier future for the people of Kashmir. Her exclusive interview with Free Press Kashmir unveils the myriad avenues where Bioinformatics is making unprecedented strides, from unravelling the mysteries of microbial communities to identifying various SARS-CoV-2 strains during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Qazi’s accolades, notably the DST-AWSAR Award, highlights her commitment to bridging the gap between complex research and public understanding. As a Scientist-B (Bioinformatics) at AIIMS, her role in dissecting genomic data and predicting genetic variations stands as a testament to the transformative power of Bioinformatics in elevating the precision and overall quality of healthcare delivery. 


Let’s start with your journey into Bioinformatics. Can you share with our readers what inspired you to pursue this field, and how has it shaped your career?

My introduction to Bioinformatics in my 12th grade back in 2012 marked the beginning of a transformative journey. Bioinformatics, a field encompassing physics, chemistry, biology, statistics, computer science, and mathematics, intrigued me with its flexibility – the ability to work from anywhere, breaking free from the conventional 9 to 6 lab setting.

Post-school, my exploration continued through graduation at the University of Delhi, where I delved into the practical aspects of Bioinformatics, not just its theory. The seamless fusion of my computer science and biology background made this multidisciplinary field easily comprehensible. Pursuing both master’s and doctoral degrees in Bioinformatics, I harnessed computational tools to unravel the intricate complexities of biological data.

In essence, Bioinformatics has given me the insight to navigate the vast biological data landscape. Like a skilled goldsmith refining raw gold into a radiant masterpiece, I, as a bioinformatician, decipher unstructured biological data to understand nature. This dynamic journey has not only broadened my understanding of life sciences but also fuelled my passion for research, contributing to the advancement of knowledge in genomics, proteomics, and beyond. I can say, Bioinformatics has been the guiding force sculpting my career, fostering a profound appreciation for the symbiotic relationship between biology and computational sciences.


For our readers unfamiliar with Bioinformatics, could you provide a simplified explanation of what you do and why it’s crucial in today’s scientific landscape?

In the realm of Bioinformatics, envision it as an amoeba, diverse yet unified in its significance. My role centers on applying computational techniques to dissect extensive biological datasets. Proficient in data analysis, programming, and statistical modelling, I decode complex patterns within genomics, epigenomics, transcriptomics, and proteomics. Using algorithms, I unveil genetic variations and delve into molecular interactions.

The importance of Bioinformatics today is paramount. With the surge in biological data from technologies like high-throughput sequencing, Bioinformatics becomes the linchpin for managing, analysing, and interpreting this wealth of information. It catalyses scientific discovery, aiding in disease understanding, drug development, and personalized medicine. Essential in genomics, epidemiology, and systems biology, Bioinformatics propels advancements in healthcare, agriculture, and environmental science. As our comprehension of biological systems grows, Bioinformatics becomes pivotal in navigating big data for innovative solutions to intricate biological challenges, ultimately benefiting society at large.


With a significant number of publications and book chapters, could you highlight one of your most impactful research findings or contributions to the field of Bioinformatics?

In the expansive landscape of Indian healthcare, marked by its burgeoning population, my focus lies in the critical realm of cancer research, particularly gynaecological malignancies. Breast, ovarian, and cervical cancers loom large in Indian women’s health, presenting a complex interplay of genetic, environmental, socio-economic, and cultural factors. Notably, these cancers often evade early detection, limiting treatment options and compromising survival rates.

My contribution to this field involves crafting novel algorithms for personalized medicine in cancers, a pioneering approach that tailors medical treatments based on an individual’s genetic makeup. As a Scientist-B (Bioinformatics) at AIIMS, New Delhi, my role revolves around dissecting genomic data from ovarian and breast cancer patients. By identifying specific genetic markers associated with gynaecological diseases, my work delves into predicting genetic variations, gene-disease associations, drug responses, and the survival of patients pre/post-chemotherapies. This integration of advanced computational methods has remarkably hastened the translation of genomic data into actionable insights, revolutionizing the practice of medicine. This research stands as a testament to the transformative power of Bioinformatics in elevating the precision, effectiveness, and overall quality of healthcare delivery, aligning with the evolving landscape of personalized healthcare.


Your accolades include three national awards, with the most recent being the DST-AWSAR Award in 2022. How have these recognitions influenced your research and career trajectory?

The DST-AWSAR Award, a recognition bestowed by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India, has significantly shaped my research journey. This accolade, centered on enhancing writing skills for articulating research, provided a unique platform to communicate complex scientific concepts to a broader audience. In my award-winning entry in the Ph.D. category, I creatively narrated the story of ovarian cancer formation and metastasis, drawing inspiration from literary works like George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” Hussain Zaidi’s “Dongri to Dubai,” and the South Indian blockbuster “Pushpa: The Rise.”

The challenge was to distil intricate scientific findings without resorting to jargon. I metaphorically portrayed unhappy ovarian cells as hooligans, orchestrating chaos in the fictional city of The Ovary and spreading their mischief to neighbouring cities like “The Los Liver,” “The United Lung Emirates,” “The Spleen,” and “The Brain.” The recognition from the Ministry of Science & Technology, India, not only added a fun dimension to my research but also emphasized the importance of effectively communicating science. This award has reinforced my commitment to making science accessible and engaging, bridging the gap between complex research and public understanding.


Tell us about your current research and your role at AIIMS. What are some current projects or areas of focus for you and your team?

At AIIMS, New Delhi, our focus revolves around pioneering an AI-based early detection system for ovarian and breast cancers, coupled with the identification of specific clinical biomarkers. The developed AI system is currently undergoing enhancements through the integration of pan-omics data, elevating its predictive accuracy. In a significant stride, we’ve implemented this model at the Department of Gynae & Obstetrics and the Department of Dentistry, AIIMS, for immediate clinical support.

Simultaneously, our team is delving into the intriguing realm of the cancer-testis antigen (CTA) gene family, specifically exploring the POTE (Prostate placenta, ovary, testis, embryo expression) gene family. This gene family has emerged as a pivotal factor in various human cancers, including prostate cancer, ovarian adenocarcinomas, cervical cancers, colon cancer, and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Our research aims to unravel the intricacies of POTE’s involvement in cancer development, paving the way for targeted interventions and advancements in cancer diagnostics and treatment.


Considering the healthcare landscape in Kashmir, how can Bioinformatics contribute to developing more targeted and effective healthcare strategies for the people in the region?

Born in Kashmir and raised in Delhi, I’m deeply aware of the challenges faced by aspiring Bioinformaticians in the region, witnessing many students leaving the valley to pursue this field. With only a handful of institutions offering professional degrees in North India, there’s a compelling case for establishing Bioinformatics as a standalone department in Kashmiri universities. Turning to the healthcare landscape in Kashmir, where breast cancer ranks as the most prevalent among women, alongside lung, colorectal, and esophageal cancers, the integration of Bioinformatics promises transformative contributions.

Bioinformatics can pioneer targeted and effective healthcare strategies in Kashmir through several avenues. From enabling Cancer Genomic Medicine for personalized treatment plans, tracking diseases through robust epidemiological analysis, and enhancing early detection with Bioinformatics-based algorithms, to accelerating drug discovery for region-specific health challenges—each facet bears the potential to revolutionize healthcare delivery. Moreover, integrating diverse healthcare data sources and leveraging health informatics can provide a comprehensive view of the population’s health, leading to improved patient care. The collaborative efforts of healthcare professionals, researchers, and Bioinformaticians are crucial for the successful implementation of these strategies, ultimately shaping a healthier future for the people of Kashmir.


Given your background in Computer-Aided Drug Design, how do you foresee the future of drug discovery and development, particularly with advancements in computational methods?

The future of drug discovery and development is poised for transformation, driven by leaps in computational methods. The rise of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data analytics is making pharmaceutical research more predictive and data-centric. Computational approaches, fuelled by vast datasets, are revolutionizing the identification and optimization of drug candidates, potentially shortening development timelines. Precision medicine, shaped by individual patient data analysis, is steering towards personalized therapies for enhanced efficacy and minimized side effects. The integration of structural biology and molecular dynamics simulations provides unprecedented insights into molecular interactions, guiding rational drug design. As this computational revolution unfolds, ethical considerations and regulatory frameworks will be pivotal in ensuring responsible and secure technology application. The future promises a convergence of computational prowess and biological understanding, ushering in an era of targeted, effective, and personalized therapeutics. This interdisciplinary landscape, blending computational methods, data science, and traditional approaches, is set to accelerate innovation, delivering more effective and targeted therapies across various diseases.


The field of Bioinformatics has witnessed some remarkable strides. Can you shed light on some of the game-changing advancements that are reshaping research and healthcare, and how these innovations are making an impact?

In the dynamic field of Bioinformatics, remarkable strides are reshaping research and healthcare. The cost-effective next-generation sequencing is unlocking the era of personalized medicine, tailoring treatments based on individual genetic profiles. Structural Bioinformatics, employing techniques like cryo-electron microscopy, is revolutionizing drug design by offering precise visualizations of molecular structures. Metagenomics and microbiome research, powered by bioinformatics tools, are unravelling the mysteries of microbial communities, influencing our understanding of human health. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Bioinformatics played a pivotal role in identifying different SARS-CoV-2 strains, showcasing its critical importance in infectious disease surveillance. Single-cell omics and artificial intelligence integration are providing unprecedented insights into cellular behaviour, expediting data analysis, biomarker discovery, and the identification of therapeutic targets. These advancements represent a paradigm shift, presenting unparalleled opportunities to enhance patient outcomes, elevate diagnostics, and propel biomedical research into uncharted territories.


How do you envision the future of Bioinformatics, and what career opportunities do you see emerging in this field?

Bioinformatics, far from being a recent venture, traces its roots back to the 1950s, pioneered by Margaret Oakley Dayhoff, aptly known as “The Mother & Father of Bioinformatics.” Despite the coining of the term in the 1970s, Bioinformatics has been an integral part of the developmental eras of computation and sciences. Today, the landscape has evolved into translational bioinformatics, pushing beyond conventional boundaries. The future promises a dynamic expansion of translational bioinformatics, driven by technological innovation and enhanced integration with other scientific disciplines. As biological data continues to burgeon in volume and complexity, bioinformatics stands as the linchpin for extracting meaningful insights, propelling advancements in personalized medicine, drug discovery, and agriculture.

The convergence of bioinformatics with artificial intelligence, machine learning, and quantum computing is poised to usher in a new era of data analysis and interpretation. Anticipating this trajectory, career opportunities in bioinformatics are set to surge across sectors like healthcare, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, and agri-genomics. Professionals equipped with expertise in data science, computational biology, and bioinformatics will be in high demand, occupying roles such as bioinformatics scientists, data analysts, computational biologists, and bioinformatics engineers. The interdisciplinary nature of bioinformatics ensures diverse career paths, from academia to industry, fostering a vibrant landscape of innovation and discovery.


Moving beyond Bioinformatics, let’s talk about the broader digital transformations in society. How do you think these transformations are shaping our perspective and lifestyle, and what role does bioinformatics play in this digital era?

Advancements in Bioinformatics are at the forefront of transformative changes shaping our perspective and lifestyle in the digital era. Bioinformatics, unravelling the complexities of genomics and biological data, is not just a scientific tool but a catalyst for a deeper understanding of our biology. This knowledge influences lifestyle choices by promoting personalized approaches to health, empowering individuals to make informed decisions based on genetic predispositions. The integration of bioinformatics into healthcare marks a paradigm shift, enabling preventative measures and personalized treatments. Beyond health, bioinformatics fosters collaboration and accelerates discoveries, impacting various aspects of our lives. In this digital age, bioinformatics emerges not merely as a tool but as a transformative force, guiding our perception of health and steering us toward a future where precision and personalized approaches become the norm.


As we wrap up, what advice do you have for aspiring bioinformaticians and individuals interested in the intersection of biology and technology?

For those venturing into the realm of Bioinformatics and the captivating intersection of biology and technology, my advice is to build a robust foundation in both domains. Develop proficiency in programming languages, statistical methods, and data analysis tools while nurturing a profound understanding of biological principles. Embrace the interdisciplinary nature of bioinformatics by staying inquisitive, keeping pace with advancements in biology and technology. Gain hands-on experience through real-world projects, collaborations, and contributions to open-source initiatives. Networking is pivotal, so actively participate in conferences and connect with professionals. As the field evolves, maintain adaptability and be ready to apply your skills to diverse challenges in healthcare, genetics, and beyond. The amalgamation of biology and technology holds boundless potential, and your passion, skills, and commitment can leave an indelible mark on the forefront of scientific innovation. In essence, be as adaptable as an amoeba, navigating the dynamic landscape with a smile.


With Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) techniques leaving their mark across diverse fields, it’s intriguing to explore their influence on Bioinformatics. Dr. Sahar Qazi, could you elaborate on how these technologies are impacting the landscape of bioinformatics, and what potential they hold for the future of research and applications in this field?

AI and machine learning are reshaping Bioinformatics, unlocking new possibilities in processing and interpreting vast biological datasets. In the realm of big medical data, characterized by its four Vs – volume, variety, velocity, and veracity, these technologies shine. Their prowess lies in identifying intricate patterns within genomics, proteomics, and other -omics data, propelling more efficient drug discovery, disease diagnosis, and personalized medicine. In drug discovery, machine learning expedites candidate identification by predicting potential drug-target interactions and assessing compound properties. Beyond this, they enable personalized medicine by integrating diverse patient data to tailor treatments based on individual genetic profiles. As AI advances, its potential in predicting protein structures, understanding complex biological networks, and deciphering the genetic basis of diseases expands. The future of bioinformatics hinges on the seamless integration of AI and machine learning, promising unparalleled opportunities to decode the complexities of biology and usher in transformative breakthroughs in research, diagnostics, and therapeutic interventions.

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