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article imageMathematics can help explain our bodies and disease

By Tim Sandle     Mar 14, 2017 in Science
Understanding how biological systems interact, including how the body responds to disease, is highly complex. To help biomedical scientists to understand the complexity two mathematicians have introduced a new model.
Math professors from the University of Michigan Medical School and University of California, Berkeley have developed a computer-based framework to help understand how genetic information and interactions between cells leads to a given type of tissue functioning in a particular way. They’ve termed this the “emergence of function.”
The aim of their new model is to aid biomedical scientists in understand what happens to cells over time and what happens when pathogens enter the human body. Outlining this further, one of the researchers, Professor Indika Rajapakse, said: "All the time, this process is happening in our bodies, as cells are dying and arising, and yet they keep the function of the tissue going. We need to use beautiful mathematics and beautiful biology together to understand the beauty of a tissue."
The model is inspired by the work of Alan Turing (who helped break German code sin World War II and laid the basis for artificial intelligence; Turing is widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence). Turing also studied the mathematical basis of morphogenesis, which refers to the biological process that causes an organism to develop its shape. From this the mathematicians looked at combining genome dynamics within the cell and the diffusion dynamics between cells. This leads to the underlying assumption in the model that the genes of an organism remain the same throughout life but how cells use them does not.
The reason why math is an appropriate tool to look at biological functions is due to the formation of networks. Gene networks are dynamic in terms how they are expressed in cells, which come down to the epigenetic tags which are added as a result of environmental factors.
It is hoped the new tool will help understand infections and the rise of cancer. Cancer is about cell development and the subsequent proliferation cycles going awry and here a computer model can help to predict how different cancers develop. Previous research has shown mathematical models have proved useful for deriving a detailed understanding of mechanisms and processes in cancer, and have been used to propose new experiments, and also to suggest different treatment modalities. Mathematics can, when mixed with sound medical science, help to alter risk prognoses.
The research has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research paper is titled “Emergence of function from coordinated cells in a tissue.”
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