Working towards a virtual human: the day-to-day modeling business at SysBioSim

Basak Tektemur Altay is the founder and CEO of start-up SysBioSim. Her company provides system biology simulation services and mathematical modeling services to optimise the drug development process.
“We try to simulate human beings. To the public that almost sounds like science fiction. But for us it’s the day-to-day reality.”

SysBioSim offers simulation and modeling services. What does that mean?

“We write mathematical models of metabolic and signaling pathways to analyse drug candidates in the early stages of drug development on computers rather than in lab animals and/or humans. So we help our clients to save time and money, as well as decreasing their animal testing. At the moment our models are complementary to animal and human studies, because of the strict drug development regulations. But they still have a huge impact and create significant time and cost benefits for our clients.”

And what is your background, are you a mathematician?

“I studied molecular biology and genetics and did an MBA as well as an MSc in International Business. On a day-to-day basis, I am more involved with the business activities at SysBioSim. We have a team of scientists on board, most of them have PhDs. In the past two years we’ve grown from a small start-up to a company with seven employees. We also have paying clients already, which is great. Now that we are generating income, we can invest in projects.”

Such as your recent collaboration with the CWI, the national research institute for mathematics and computer science?

“Yes, it’s a public/private partnership project. Together we are conducting a study about kidney fibrosis. A very devastating disease, that’s why it’s important to develop new platforms that can support the development of better drugs faster and more cost-effectively. Our ultimate aim in this project is something that will take years: to create a complete organ level model - a virtual kidney.”

You are an advocate for more computational studies, or as they are called ‘in-silico’ clinical trials.

“Animal and clinical studies take a lot of time. Computational studies and simulations have a much shorter time frame. In science there is an increasing amount of evidence on the strength of computational or in silico analysis, however, regulation wise we are not there yet. I think regulations need to catch up. Indeed, I understand them being careful, but I still believe authorities could be a little bit more proactive.
We are working hard on developing the models for in-silico studies and validating them, but they are already very valuable. We are operating on a cell and tissue level and striving to reach the organ level right, but our ultimate goal is to build a complete organism.”

When would that be possible, a virtual human to test out every drug candidate imaginable?

“I would be happy if we could do it in ten years, but more realistically it will probably be twenty or thirty years. It would have such a huge impact on human health. Just imagine: if we have a virtual human being, we could personalise it and everything could be tested in-silico! It would give you predictions of how your body would react to any drug, food, or basically any kind of input or exposure. It’s a point in the far future, but it helps us to focus on that point because we know we are trying to contribute towards the future of personalised medicine. For the public it almost sounds like science fiction. But for us it’s the day-to-day reality.”

Save the date!

Basak partakes in the new and dynamic BioTech Data Initiative, which aims to promote better R&D workflow design via computational means in life sciences field starting from Leiden Bio Science Park. The initiative is consisting of Biotech Training Facility, Buxenus, Filterless, SysBioSim, Szienz and is open to everyone who is motivated about computational approaches. For more information, please contact Barbara Brunnhuber, LBSP projectmanager starters.
The first Biotech Data Initiative Lounge will be held on February 14th 2017 at 15.30-17.00 at the Biotech Training Facility.

Interview by Julie de Graaf