Elephants rarely get cancer: less than 5% of captive elephants die of cancer, compared to 20% of humans. Elephant genomes have at least 20 copies of the tumour suppressor, p53, which may explain their low cancer rates relative to humans, who have only one copy.
I'm the co-founder and CEO of a start-up, GeneAdviser, which is making it easier for doctors to order life-saving tests for genetic diseases and cancers. I came to Cambridge for a PhD in genomics and computational biology. I chose to study genetics because it is the fundamental language describing how life is built, so it is exciting scientifically as well as being a very powerful tool. I find all life fascinating, and it’s a pleasure to be in a rapidly developing field where there is so much to discover. But I’ve always had have an entrepreneurial streak! My first business was a fire-twirling and circus performance group at university. We would perform at college balls and other events, which was great fun. I’ve also been starting and working for various volunteer groups for as long as I can remember. I find it exciting to promote different causes and help organisations grow. I’m one of the directors of TReND in Africa, a charity aiming to improve scientific capacity across Africa, by training and supporting African researchers working in biomedical sciences. We ship over equipment, help set up genetics labs, and support researchers in setting their own research agendas, and pursuing their dreams.
The field of genetic testing shows so much potential. It’s vital that we share knowledge and work together to turn these scientific advances into results for patients worldwide.
So, how did I get out of the lab and into business? During my PhD and my postdoc work, I met lots of people working in rare genetic diseases and learned a lot about the challenges faced by patients and carers of people with rare genetic disorders. I was struck by one fact in particular: it takes on average six years for patients to get a diagnosis for a rare disease. People get sent from one doctor to another in search of answers. With the cost of genetic testing falling all the time, there’s no reason why patients should face such a frustrating journey. I saw an opportunity to help, and to combine my interest in business with my background in science. Co-founded with my colleague Robert Stojnic, we’re creating a website that lets doctors across the world find and order genetic tests. In time, we hope that more doctors will feel confident to use genetic testing in their practice, so that patients can get diagnostic answers sooner. Building a community to make a difference With another colleague and fellow entrepreneur, Tim Guilliams, I co-founded the Cambridge Rare Disease Network to bring together people who research, support and advocate for people with rare genetic conditions. We’ve just held our first conference, and we were thrilled that Prof Stephen Hawking sent us a message of support. What started as just a few like-minded individuals with a shared interest in rare disease is quickly growing into a group of people who can really make a difference. It’s been great to have this community of support. Within the Network, we have other young business people and researchers, as well as more experienced mentors and leaders in rare disease advocacy. My secrets of success I love the process and the kind of work that keeps me awake at night. Rather than the concept of success, I try and focus on creating something valuable, that solves a real need, and doing that to the best of my ability. The start-up scene in Cambridge is really supportive. Anyone with a good idea can run with it and with passion, the right resources and a bit of luck, it feels like anything is possible.
Dr Jelena Aleksic
Founder & CEO at GeneAdviser
Founding Director at Cambridge Rare Disease Network Director of Bioinformatics
UK Coordinator at TReND in Africa
University of Cambridge alumna