New Digital Health CRC PhD candidate Alan Robertson was this month recognised as an ‘emerging talent’ by the Australian Academy of Sciences. His startup, ClearSKY Genomics was named as one of the winners for Falling Walls Lab Australia, and Alan will go on to present this work at the next level of the competition.

The ‘Falling Walls’ event began in 2011, to commemorate the 20-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and supports innovative responses to global challenges from science and the humanities.

Alan is a molecular bioscientist who worked with Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University, and also coordinates two genomics subjects in the Master of Diagnostics Genomics course at Queensland University of Technology.

“By studying the information in a person’s DNA, we can produce better diagnoses, better treatments, and a better understanding of things like cancer,” he says – but with just a few hundred specialists able to decode DNA tests, access to this remarkable resource is limited.

He founded ClearSky in 2017 aiming to unlock the clinical potential of genomics testing and has already won national MedTech awards including BridgeTech PitchTech and the Australian Global IP, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Contest.

“We rely on doctors to interpret complex tests like XRays and MRI scans for their patients, but advances in genetics have brought vast quantities of new data to medicine,” he says.

“My three minute pitch about our work, as part of the Australian Falling Walls finals, explained how we are developing a genome browser to simplify and give context to the information from a DNA scan for doctors and clinicians,” he says.

“Our ‘mychro’ browser means it is just as easy for a doctor to understand the information in a patient’s DNA as it is for them to read an Xray or a CT scan. It’s an Xray for DNA!”

ClearSky is working with a US organisation and hopes to initially bring the technology to the reproductive health sector, Alan says.

PhD project

Alan is a great example of the wonderful talent among the applicants who were awarded a scholarship under the new DHCRC collaboration with Queensland Health and the University of Queensland which aims to turn research into practice without delay.

“The application process was really competitive, and I almost missed out. I was really lucky to make the cut. Seeing the opportunities they’re offering us, and how much they believe in us, it makes realise how lucky I was,” he said.

The coordinated set of scholarships for doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows will see researchers, including Alan, embedded in Queensland Health and its partner organisations.

The insights from their initial research across specific sectors of Queensland Health will be  transferred across the health system.

“When I saw that they wanted to produce the ‘next generation interdisciplinary specialists’, and ‘leaders in digital health’, I thought it was just a bit of fluff – but I’ve really been surprised by how deep their commitment to supporting us has been.”

Alan’s PhD is in a different (but related) area to his work with his start-up company, ClearSky.

He says that his project will start by looking at how the raw, processed, and analysed genomic data is treated in Queensland Health, then move to find a solution that meets the needs of healthcare professionals, genomic researchers and the patients – and he’s excited about getting underway.

“In my opinion, the PhD scholarships offered by the Digital Health CRC are by far, some of the best scholarships in the country,” he says.

“It’s a very generous scholarship, not just in terms of the living allowance – but with the number of opportunities they’re providing us with.”

Spare Time

Surprisingly, Alan does have a life outside his university work, study and running a high-tech digital health startup.

He and his wife are big fans of the hit TV series, Ru Paul’s Drag Race – and live with their very own Instagram Influencer – their three-year old corgi named Kiwi. She has over 5,000 followers, he says. “Way more than me!”

Corgis hold a special appeal to geneticists; Alan says that their short stature is due to a genetic mutation.

“Normal sized dogs have two copies of a gene called FGF4, while corgis and dachshunds have four copies,” he says. “Kiwi isn’t just cute, she’s educational too.”