For computational biologists like Narek Dshkhunyan, the war against diseases and viruses is waged with the weapons of complex calculations: statistical models, data algorithms and machine learning techniques. By running sophisticated mathematical models on lab data, Dshkhunyan learns how individual cells respond to the virus, eventually leading to highly targeted therapies. Since the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, he has trained his focus on little else.
“The first cases of COVID-19 were in late December and by January, scientists had sequenced the genome: the RNA sequence of this virus,” he explains. “Working in a genomics company where we read these genomes all day, every day—that was the ‘a-ha moment.’ Once a virus is sequenced, we can study it, understand it, and finally, develop vaccines against it.”
And while many in the medical and biotech community may have anticipated the emergence of a COVID-19-like virus, Dshkhunyan was among those who were surprised by the velocity of its spread. Dshkhunyan and his colleagues at his biotech firm, 10xGenomics, shared an initial optimism that the virus would be contained quickly, with public health agencies aligning to detect cases, offer guidelines, and contain the spread. When that did not transpire, his firm, along with numerous others, trained their efforts on the deadly virus.
“I can’t speak on behalf of the whole medical and biotech community, but I would say everyone is surprised at how fast it spread and how devastating it was. We had recognized that there was some likelihood of a serious event in the future, but it was always on the order of ‘Oh, maybe the next flu strain will be much more infectious and deadly.’”
You need to understand what the actual biological changes are that the disease is causing to the body, cell by cell.
Dshkhunyan had spent years looking at the behavior of individual cells when reacting to invasion by diseases or viruses. “Every disease, whether COVID-19 or cancer, affects every cell in the body differently. Every single cell in your body is unique,” explains Dshkhunyan. “For example, when the virus of COVID enters your lungs, it's affecting some cells, but not others. Some proteins emerge that try to kill the virus, but some are unaffected by the virus. Any time you want to treat a disease, you need to understand why the disease happens in the first place, and what the actual biological changes are that the disease is causing to the body, cell by cell.”
One of Dshkhunyan’s prime focuses is the way the SARS-CoV-2 virus infects the body through the protein receptor called ACE2. The virus binds to this protein and then enters the cells. But this protein is not uniformly expressed in the body. Within some tissues, some cells have more of this protein expressed on their surfaces, which means there are more entry points for the virus, increasing the chances of getting infected. As more samples of tissue are studied, Dshkhunyan is able to produce more statistically valid behavioral models for the virus. In turn, these models predict the best path for targeting therapeutic treatments and vaccines to prevent infection.
Dshkhunyan’s path to the rarified field of bioinformatics was a remarkably unlikely one. He was born in 1991 in Gyumri, Armenia, only three years after it was hit by a devastating earthquake that coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ongoing war with Azerbaijan. Dshkhunyan characterizes his upbringing as being “difficult” in multiple ways.
“I grew up in a small town called Maralik, 20 kilometers south of Gyumri, basically, between Gyumri and Yerevan. That region, called Shirak, was challenging not only because of the earthquake, but because of ongoing economic difficulties,” he recalls. “I remember we would never really see men on the streets of the villages, because for the most part, the men were in Russia working. So many children were raised in single-parent households.”
For Dshkhunyan, the saving grace, despite the hardships of post-Soviet Armenia, was a respect for education. “Even in my village where it was standard to not have electricity for many days, where you would have to go up the mountain to literally carry water from springs to your own house, people poured what money they had into education,” he recalls.
“They rebuilt the schools, made sure there were textbooks, and ensured there was some electricity in the schools. And in general, it was an expectation in my community that you just study well. Under these conditions, the way to go forward is to become an educated person. I'm proud to say that what we heard most was ‘study hard, work hard, and that's how you succeed in life.’”
Dshkhunyan dove into education, immersing himself in all the books he could find in the library, learning to read Russian before he could read Armenian since most books were leftover from Soviet times. Fortunately, his maternal aunt recognized his innate thirst for knowledge, and his emerging interest in science in particular. She was in a unique position to guide him.
“My aunt was a chemistry professor at the Yerevan State University, and when I would visit her house they had chemistry books. There would be problems to solve in the back of the chapter and I would just be working them out. But these would be college-level books and I was in middle school,” he laughs.
His aunt immediately pushed him to enter science contests. In his first competition against students from elite private schools, Dshkhunyan, who attended the local public middle school, conquered the National Chemistry Olympiad, almost without breaking a sweat. “It was kind of a huge thing,” he reluctantly admits.
“The people who were running the Olympiad said, ‘Who is this kid and where did he come from?’” he laughs, “After that, it was acknowledged that I too should go to one of the elite schools. I went to the scientifically specialized Anania Shirakatsy Lyceum for high school, and began to enter International Chemistry Olympiads, really without expectations, just to see how I’d do. I medalled in those, too, and suddenly the Armenian educational ministers took notice.”
Now recognized and mentored by the nation’s top educators, Dshkhunyan was encouraged to set his sights after high school on an international education.
“I was lucky enough to have mentors early on who showed what is possible. I never knew what was beyond the small place I grew up. My high school was very, very generous in support. They helped me with my English and with the application process and essays; I applied to American colleges and universities, including MIT, and remarkably I got in.”
Not surprisingly, moving to Boston to attend MIT after a life as a science whiz in rural Armenia was significantly life changing for Dshkhunyan. At MIT, he was surrounded by computer science, math, and statistics majors. And for the first time, he recognized the power of computational tools to study everything in the universe, from the smallest molecules to radio waves emitting from other galaxies.
At MIT, he also discovered a thriving Armenian community. He received scholarships from AGBU, enabling him to complete both his bachelor’s and master’s studies, double-majoring in computer science and molecular biology at MIT. The AGBU chapter held receptions and social events that included hosting the President of Armenia, and along with the MIT Armenian Society, helped Dshkhunyan forge friendships that continue to this day.
As part of the MIT Global Teaching Labs international outreach program, Dshkhunyan returned to Armenia in the summers of 2015 and 2016 with MIT peers to mentor and teach promising Armenian high school students. Dshkhunyan has established MIT Global Labs Armenia, sponsored by AGBU, the Luys and Ayb Foundations, building a permanent bridge for talented students like himself. Recently, HIVE Ventures, a venture capital firm which backs Armenian entrepreneurs, recognized Dshkhunyan as one of their “30 Under 30 Armenians in Tech.”
Dshkhunyan’s research work at MIT led to more major geographical moves for him; to bioinformatics positions at cutting-edge biotechnical and AI firms in San Diego and Palo Alto, and finally to 10xGenomics in San Francisco, where his biocomputational expertise has now turned to the many questions around the antibodies that may or may not be protective for patients who have survived a bout with COVID-19, and whether transferring blood plasma of COVID-19 survivors can be effective against the disease.
While so much remains unknown about the efficacy of such treatments, Dshkhunyan speaks optimistically about the work being carried out in the biomedical community in the fight against the virus, and in particular, the sharing and pooling of data so vital to developing a vaccine.
He notes that those in the community understand that these are unprecedented times. “We are all in this together,” he remarks. “Companies working on the virus are sharing the genetic data, along with their vaccine targeting strategies. So that’s one outcome from COVID-19 that is positive, and perhaps will continue. A recognition that the fight against disease should know no boundaries.”
Dshkhunyan adds, “We have a saying in our company that the 21st century should be called the Human Biology Century. The war against COVID-19 throws a light on something scientists already know: all humans and societies in the world, regardless of their structure and cultural differences, share the same biology and the same problems. I may be from a small village in Armenia but as a citizen of the world, I know that science and education can help us overcome any problem, wherever we are.”
Banner photo: Dshkhunyan has been working from home in Los Angeles, CA during the COVID-19 outbreak.