Applying AI In Genetic Studies Of Cerebral Palsy

Two co-op students from the Faculty of Science have made a big impact during a recent work term at the SickKids Research Institute. Murto Hilali and Kritika Grover are using AI as a tool to understand cerebral palsy - and their efforts have earned them recognition as contributing authors in an upcoming paper published in Nature Genetics.

The paper, titled  Comprehensive whole-genome sequence annotation to elucidate the genetic architecture of cerebral palsy, focuses on the computational modelling of genes associated with cerebral palsy. Using the cutting-edge AlphaFold AI algorithm, the study dives into the intricate details of specific gene variants, aiming to unravel the mysteries surrounding this neurological condition.

Hilali is a fourth-year student in the Biotechnology/Economics program, while Grover is a fourth-year student specializing in Biochemistry with a minor in Computing. Their journey began when Hilali, early in his co-op term, was assigned the task of understanding how AlphaFold (an AI program that performs predictions of protein structure) could be applied to study specific gene variants. His findings coincided with gaps in an ongoing paper, leading his supervisor to invite him to contribute his expertise to the project. 

Hilali used AlphaFold to visualize genes and predict how they could influence symptoms of cerebral palsy. He notes the immense opportunity that AI tools provide for breaking down barriers in science by needing only his laptop to participate in this research.

"Nature Genetics publishing this paper is incredibly important, as it shows a huge leap in using computational tools to support research in biology and health care overall," Hilali says. "I am so proud that our research using AlphaFold was included in the paper, and I think using AI opens the gates for more people to participate in scientific research."

Upon the completion of his co-op term, Hilali entrusted Grover to continue the research where she brought the project to fruition. Grover utilized AlphaFold to analyze an unexplored gene in earlier versions of the paper. The field of bioinformatics was new territory for her, and throughout her work, became inspired by the potential of AI in transforming health care research.

Kritika Grover and Murto Hill working on their laptops together

Kritika Grover (left) and Murto Hilali (right) using AlphaFold AI algorithm on their laptops to visualize genes and predict how they could influence symptoms of cerebral palsy.

"This research uses an AI-powered alternative to understand genes," Grover says. "Beyond its scientific advancements, the integration of AI in a lab reduces the need for extensive pre-clinical trials, which could accelerate drug discovery and have a positive impact on those affected by cerebral palsy."

SickKids is one of our many co-op employers with labs run by Waterloo Alumni. Led by the Chief of Research, Dr. Stephen Scherer (BSc '87) and his team, Hilali and Grover are immensely grateful for the opportunities to work in the Scherer Academic Lab.

"We had great mentors in the lab who offered invaluable resources and I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to work with them on this research," Hilali says.

"Dr. Scherer's lab environment was supportive and uplifting and allowed me to apply what I've learned in class to real-world research," Grover adds. "I could not have asked for a better co-op experience." 

A co-op stream of study is offered in most Science programs at the University of Waterloo. Learn more about the programs and opportunities available on  the Science website or visit the Waterloo  co-operative education website

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