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The University of Southampton
Institute for Life Sciences

Southampton wins funding to transform medical research with cutting-edge data analysis

Published: 29 September 2015
Data analysis

A team of life sciences researchers at the University of Southampton have been awarded a £1.5m Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) grant to develop cutting-edge data analysis techniques that could help transform future medical research.

The interdisciplinary team, led by Professor of Mathematics Jacek Brodzki, is at the forefront of developing new techniques to interpret large complex datasets that could be used in the development of new drugs, and improve the detection, diagnosis and treatment of healthcare conditions such as asthma.

The programme will bring together researchers from mathematics, statistics, computer science, chemistry and medicine under the aegis of the Institute for Life Sciences (IfLS) to explore the significant societal challenge of extracting contextual information from the enormous amount of data.

Jacek said: “The relentless growth of the variety, and availability of data has profoundly transformed all aspects of human life, but this Big Data revolution has left us facing a paradox – while we create and collect more data than ever before, it is often difficult to unlock the information it contains. How can we turn this data into major scientific and economic advantage by efficiently and intelligently extracting knowledge while retaining the context necessary for its interpretation?

“In order to convert the vast amounts of data into understandable, actionable information we need to create analytic tools that are equal to the challenge, and we believe that by developing a powerful fusion of machine learning, statistics, and topology we will create a seamless pathway from data analysis to implementation.”

The programme will see the team developing their work to address the problem of creating a set of descriptors to diagnose and treat asthma, as well as investigating a more efficient search of new compounds in chemistry that play a key part in the creation of new medicines.

Jacek explained: “A major challenge in the diagnosis and treatment of asthma is how to combine the information from the five main pathways for clinical diagnosis to create a coherent picture of the disease – an ‘asthma handprint’.”

The team will be working with an extensive network of scientific and business connections, including the multinational EU consortium U-BIOPRED (the largest asthma research programme in the world), to test their new analytic tools on real-world problems such as asthma.

By using quality controlled patient data collected by U-BIOPRED they will identify leading biomarkers of asthma that could potentially lead to new diagnostic pathways and better personalised healthcare provision for asthma sufferers. Researchers will also explore the structure of bronchial trees to help improve understanding of the efficiency of different asthma treatments.

The team is focused on producing new analytic tools could potentially have significant and long-lasting impact across many areas of medicine and healthcare including unlocking genetic profiles in the battle to tackle cancer.

Jacek said: “This funding is affirmation that we have created a truly interdisciplinary research partnership where all disciplines can meaningfully interact and work together on common ground. We have already been working together for a number of years and have invested a substantial amount of time, effort and funding into developing such a unique team of collaborators.

“The EPSRC award gives us the means to be able to pursue the next step in our vision and to test our ideas against some of the most challenging problems in medicine and the sciences.”

Co-investigator Ratko Djukanovic, Professor of Medicine at the University of Southampton and Director of the NIHR Southampton Respiratory Biomedical Research Unit, said: "This award reflects the excellent collaborative spirit amongst the different faculties but will be of great benefit to many research groups worldwide. We have a great need for tools that can analyse large, complex datasets in an era of stratified medicine where the aim is to give the right medicine to the right patient".

Co-investigator Jeremy Frey, Professor of Physical Chemistry, said: “This grant provides the opportunity to work more closely with the mathematics community on applying the fundamental ideas of topology to the structure of chemical space in an attempt better to understand the underlying ‘map’ of the vast array of different molecules available to chemists and holds out the prospect of much improved drug and materials discovery.

“It is an exciting time to bring pure mathematics and pure chemistry together to improve the pathway to chemical applications.”

Professor Peter J S Smith, Director of the Institute for Life Sciences said “I am delighted to see the breadth of interdisciplinary research come together in such a successful venture. This is an exciting project, for both the research group and the wider University”.

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