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Continued: 'Informatics' helps doctors unlock medical mysteries in mounds of data

  • Article by: DAN BROWNING , Star Tribune
  • Last update: August 3, 2013 - 10:15 PM

Doctors meet mathematicians

The U’s new BICB graduate program has 50 students enrolled; more than half are health care professionals who’ve recognized the need to acquire data analysis skills, said Claudia Neuhauser, a distinguished mathematician who directs the program.

Massive data sets require new tools of analysis, like the predictive modeling that Amazon uses to recommend certain books to customers, she said.

Biologists, she said, should learn “enough of the quantitative tools that they can analyze the data in a meaningful way,” Neuhauser said. “The onus is on [us] to develop ways of teaching so that biologists can fruitfully use the tools.”

In the past, scientists started with a hypothesis, then collected and analyzed the data to test the question that they asked, Neuhauser said; now they wade into massive data sets they already have, looking for ways to optimize treatment.

Analyzing the 3 billion base pairs of four letters that make up the human genome may seem complicated enough, but even more challenging, she said, “is the whole imaging piece.” Digital images from scans and high-tech processes like X-ray crystallography require huge databanks. And they are difficult to link to other data types, Neuhauser said.

But electronic health records are already being analyzed to ensure that patient care is cost-effective, said Bonnie Westra, a former software company founder who coordinates the informatics specialty within the U’s Twin Cities nursing program.

One study of 500,000 patients proved that certified nurses “absolutely” make a difference in the quality of care for patients suffering from incontinence, pressure ulcers and surgical wounds, she said.

The same database is now being mined for ways to predict which patients are likely to be readmitted after being released from a hospital.

Charlie’s legacy

In Charlie Knuth’s case, Big Data helped unlock the genetic code so that researchers could use molecular scissors to precisely cut out a single letter in his faulty genome and replace it with the correct one. Mark J. Osborn, an assistant professor at the U’s Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant Center, was the lead author in a recent peer-reviewed article in the journal Molecular Therapy describing the procedure.

The result: For the first time, Charlie’s skin cells began producing the “Type VII collagen” fibers that act like Velcro to anchor the skin in place.

Tolar said his team used the “heavy guns” of biomedical informatics and an advanced German genomics databank to demonstrate that the procedure would meet federal clinical standards as effective and safe. He now plans to seek approval to try it in humans.

“What I’m engaging is the DNA repair system that’s already operational in the cell,” Tolar said. “I’m just offering it some tools to repair itself, and that’s why it’s efficacious, right? Because most elegant things come from nature.”


Dan Browning • 612-673-4493


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