Niven Narain: smarter medicine

The tragic death of his grandmother inspired Niven Narain’s career in cutting-edge cancer research. Erline Andrews learns how the Guyanese-American scientist is pioneering the use of artificial intellignce to create better, cheaper drugs for all

Niven Narain. Photo courtesy Berg LLC

When he was thirteen years old, Niven Narain lost his grandmother to cancer.

“I watched her go through nine months that were just horrific,” he recalls. “We felt helpless. As soon as we heard ‘cancer,’ all we thought of was death. She was going to die. This is the end. There was no hope.

“I remember thinking at her funeral, ‘I just have to do something about this,’” he says. “My inspiration came not only from her death, but from watching the effect of her death on the family.”

The experience had a monumental impact on Narain’s life — and now, potentially, the lives of many others. Today, Narain is a clinical scientist at the cutting edge of research that will dramatically improve the way we treat some of the most common terminal illnesses, including cancer.

Narain, a Guyanese-American who lives in Boston, is the co-founder of Berg, a pharmaceutical company promising to deliver big things. The Berg product nearest to market is a cancer drug that may be able to treat the disease more effectively, with fewer side effects, and no need for debilitating chemotherapy. “We have the chance to change the paradigm of how cancer is treated,” Narain says.

Pharmaceutical companies typically make drugs from a bank of chemicals and then test them for effectiveness in a process that can take more than a decade and cost billions of dollars, contributing to the high cost of prescription medication. Narain and Berg think there’s a better way. The company designs its drugs by looking at data collected from the tissue and lifestyle information of hundreds of patients. This amount of information would be too much for human researchers to assess, so the company uses artificial intelligence to sort the data, creating medical treatments in a shorter amount of time, for less money, and more closely matched to patients’ biology — which makes the treatment more likely to work and have fewer side effects.

Now thirty-seven, Narain was born in Guyana. His parents moved to the Bahamas when he was a toddler, then later to Miami, Florida. He went to the University of Miami, where he later worked as a researcher. He was a bright kid, but could have missed his calling were it not for certain interventions.

Both Narain’s parents were teachers, and understood the importance of study and discipline. “On Saturdays, I would only get to watch TV for an hour, if I would go through all my math,” he says. In high school, his many different interests — including baseball — almost steered him from his course.“I have to give credit to a Guyanese teacher in the Bahamas. He said to me at recess, ‘If you could just focus your damn self on biology, you’d probably do good,’” Narain remembers. “He put me up to a challenge. He said, ‘Promise just to spend an extra hour and just be focused on this one drawing.’ It was the gastro-intestinal system. I did, and I got full marks on the test.”

Later, while working at the University of Miami, Narain met Carl Berg, a real estate and venture capital mogul, and business executive Mitch Gray. “The relationship was really born out of frustration,” he says. “I realised in the developed world doctors are really told to treat patients by a line of therapy — which drugs should be prescribed in certain situations. There’s no real space for innovation, for asking why we’re doing this, and is there a better way of doing drugs.”

“I wanted to do something really bold,” he says.

 

Pharmaceutical companies don’t have the best reputation right now. US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton recently named them among her enemies, and earlier this year entrepreneur Martin Shkreli showed how greed can fuel the price of life-saving drugs, when he acquired the rights to a cheaply manufactured HIV drug and increased the cost to patients by five thousand per cent.

Narain acknowledges that some companies don’t “put patients at the centre.” But this is changing, he says. “I think most of the industry is actually making an effort.” He points to the Precision Medicine Initiative of US President Barack Obama and the 100,000 Genomes Project introduced by UK Prime Minister David Cameron as examples of new attitudes towards medicine.

“The government, the big companies, and especially the smaller biotech companies in the field are making that shift, where folks realise they need to put the patient in the centre,” Narain says. “What’s going to happen in the next few years is that the power is going to be re-shifted to the patient, which is where it should be.”

And artificial intelligence is going to be an important part of medical technology going forward — dire warnings about computers taking over the world notwithstanding. “There are thirty thousand genes [in the human body],” Narain says. “There’s no way we can understand human biology by ourselves. What AI is helping us to do is integrate that knowledge base, and understand how a cancer cell behaves differently from a normal cell. AI in the context of how Berg is using it, how the science world is using, it is really positive.”

Narain, who’s married to a neuropsychologist, would like to see scientists get more attention in the Caribbean. He’s involved in a programme, Science from Scientists, to encourage elementary and high school students in the US state of Massachusetts to take up science by having actual researchers teach and mentor them. He’d like to see similar programmes in the Caribbean, which he says is an “untapped” source of innovative talent.

“There are so many other Caribbean scientists in the world who I meet and are doing amazing things. There are so many kids that could probably do even better than me,” he says. “I think there are lots of people like me who are willing to volunteer time, effort, and money to help those programmes.”

Narain visits the Caribbean regularly, he says. His favourite island is Trinidad. His younger brother Stephen is a writer, and often participates in the annual NGC Bocas Lit Fest there. Narain says his Caribbean heritage, and the region’s colonial history, contribute significantly to his attitude towards work and life.

“I was flying to London last month. I had an interview with the BBC,” he recalls. “As I was landing in London, I wasn’t thinking about myself, I wasn’t thinking about Berg, I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing today.

“I was thinking about the generations before who set the foundation for me, the ones who toiled and worked to allow me to have that opportunity. It keeps me very humble and grounded,” he says. “No matter what we do, I always remember that you always have to serve.”