Eradicating Ebola with mathematics and statistics

 In News

MELBOURNE, 28 November 2014. The most effective and, perhaps, surprising weapons in our current battle against the spread of diseases like Ebola, HIV and cancer may prove to be mathematics and computation.

From 1 – 5 December, leading Australian and international experts will converge at Monash University’s Caulfield campus for the annual BioInfoSummer symposium to share their expertise and most recent discoveries using bioinformatics; a study that combines techniques from mathematics, information technologies, physical sciences and engineering and applies them to solve significant problems in biological and medical sciences.

Software programs are dissecting “big data” sets.

Our current ability to collect “big data” sets from biological systems or in medical research greatly exceeds our ability to interpret it or to recognise its significance in something as complex as a human being. Ever-evolving sophisticated computer software programs, such as PhyML, MrBayes and BEAST, can now pinpoint underlying trends and patterns from vast seas of digital information leading to possible solutions to some of the most significant health problems facing the global community.

Monash University Professor Kate Smith-Miles, Director of MAXIMA (Monash Academy for Cross and Interdisciplinary Mathematical Applications), knows first-hand the importance of collaboration. “Mathematics provides a universal language,” she says. “From modelling biological systems to developing statistical methods for analysing the spread of infectious diseases like Ebola, mathematicians are indispensable in the development and application of tools able to tackle complex issues.”

By modelling the spread of Ebola, bioinformaticians are assisting international governments and the World Health Organisation in the assessment of risks associated with its further spread. These risks propagate through the whole of society and may influence human mortality and trigger economic and political crises. Dr Barbara Holland from the University of Tasmania will present how these software programs are being used to uncover the origins of the latest Ebola outbreak.

Bioinformatics tackling cancer and osteoporosis.

But it isn’t simply epidemics that bioinformatics aids. Research into the mutation of cancer causing cells as well as modelling the effects of drugs and exercise on bone health are some of the other examples that will be discussed. Over the next decade fractures resulting from osteoporosis are expected to cost the Australian economy $22.7 billion; using computational models we can devise optimal therapeutic interventions based on each patients specific circumstances. Associate Professor Peter Pivonka from the Australian Institute for Musculoskeletal Science at the University of Melbourne will be presenting his latest research findings on osteoporosis.

The significance and potential significance of bioinformatics research has already reached the highest levels of government.

“The challenge is to turn these huge collections of data into information that can inform us and advance the world around us,” says Senator the Hon Scott Ryan, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education, who will be opening BioInfoSummer 2014 at Monash University’s Caulfield campus.

“I congratulate the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) on running BioInfoSummer to assist researchers across a range of disciplines to develop key statistical and mathematical skills that will enable them to pursue innovation.”

This year’s BioInfoSummer will bring together over 200 students and researchers. With an emphasis on the role bioinformaticians play in analysing “big data” attendees will gain hands-on training and experience in the cutting-edge tools of rapidly evolving field.

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Professor Kate Smith-Miles
Associate Professor Peter Pivonka
Other speakers may be available upon request

Stephanie Pradier, AMSI, 0424568314

Journalists are welcome to attend throughout the week
Building K, Monash University, Caulfield Campus, 900 Dandenong Road (Princes Hwy), Caulfield East

Opening Ceremony – Monday 1, 10:45am
Poster session – Tuesday 2, 3:30pm
Careers panel – Tuesday 2, 6:30pm
Poster session & BBQ – Thursday 4, 5:45pm

The Australian Government provided $2 million over four years for the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) Vacation Schools and Scholarships Project, and BioInfoSummer is an initiative supported under the project. The project aims to provide Australian students with access to advanced programs in the fields of mathematical and scientific research. It is part of the Government’s broader $54 million package to improve the teaching and learning of mathematics and science in Australia.

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