Cracking Medical Mysteries with Math

May 19, 2015
Math equations on a blackboard.

In the early 21st century, mathematicians have emerged as some of medicine’s greatest unsung heroes, shedding light on complex biological processes and analyzing mountains of data, all to improve patient health.

“Math is a powerful tool that allows us to understand physiology in a very precise way,” says Fadil Santosa, professor of mathematics and director of the U’s Institute for Mathematics and Its Applications (IMA).

In the works is a project — in partnership with Medtronic — to develop an artificial pancreas that will actually learn from the host patient via a math model designed by the IMA, then deliver medication based on carefully constructed algorithms.

Three other U researchers are harnessing the power of mathematics:

• Dan Knights, a newly named McKnight Land-Grant Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering,  focuses on what he calls “hacking the microbiome.”

“We look for patterns in the microbial communities in the gut that link to various diseases,” he explains, “and we use those patterns to help develop better therapeutics and diagnostics.” Ultimately, knowledge of the gut microbiome could result in something like a probiotic cocktail that could rebalance a system out of whack.

• Jasmine Foo, a McKnight Land Grant Assistant Professor in the U’s School of Mathematics, is a quantitative modeler who gathers extensive amounts of data about a particular cancer.

“When we understand better how tumors evolve, and how resistance to drug therapy evolves,” Foo says, “then, ideally, we can design more effective combinations of therapies.”

• Yoichiro Mori is an associate professor of mathematics with a passion for math that lured him away from practicing medicine.

Mori is digging deep into electrophysiology, the study of electrical activity in the body. “Electrophysiology is one of the older fields of study in mathematical biology,” explains Mori, who builds math models to determine exactly how electrical signals are propagated throughout the heart, and what it looks like when things go wrong.