Bin Ma is a computer scientist helping researchers around the world find medical treatments for illnesses like cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

Bin Ma and Ming Li

Bin Ma and PEAKS co-founder Ming Li

Ma, a professor in the University’s David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science, has helped develop a software product called PEAKS that supports scientists working in proteomics - the large-scale study of proteins in biological samples.

Scientists are looking at proteins or peptides as markers for human diseases. The research involves huge amounts of data and PEAKS is helping scientists interpret those data sets more quickly than ever before.


Really big data

“There are thousands of proteins in a single tissue sample,” explains Ma. “Researchers need help interpreting all this data.”

To give people a sense of how large big data sets are – Ma says scientists send their hard drives to him because the data sets are too large to be uploaded through the internet.

Medical applications

The discoveries made by scientists help pharmaceutical researchers develop new drugs and customized treatments for patients.

Ma explains that diseases like cancer have various subtypes and doctors need to know which subtype a patient has so they can “select the most effective treatment the first time for that particular patient.”

If doctors know which protein or peptide is a marker for a particular disease, they can test individual patients for the biomarker and then prescribe the best drug for that particular patient.

Waterloo company has invested millions into developing software

Ma and fellow computer science professor, Ming Li, co-founded Bioinformatics Solutions Inc., a Waterloo-based company with 15 employees that develops and sells PEAKS to researchers in 40 countries.

The PEAKS software has been recognized as the best tool in the world for discovering new peptides and variants of proteins, says Ma.

He says the University’s intellectual property policy, which gives creators ownership of their intellectual property, allowed his team to keep improving the software and investing in Bioinformatics Solutions.

“The company has invested millions of dollars developing the software,” says Ma. “We would never have received a grant large enough to keep this going.”

Ma says the liberal policy at Waterloo inspires invention because researchers feel free to test ideas when they’re not encumbered by bureaucracy and fear of failure.

An interesting application for the software has been the study of venom, which holds great promise as a source for new drugs. PEAKS is also being used by nutritional scientists looking to make a better beer and those looking at proteins on bacteria in meat.