Using math for medicine

By By Nathan Storey

By Nathan Storey

For some people, math can feel like a heart attack. However, James P. Keener, professor of mathematics at the U, said it is actually heart attacks that can lead you to mathematics.

“We increasingly need math with biology,” said Keener at the Frontiers of Science Lecture Series on Nov. 1. “The study of cardiology has given rise to new mathematics.”

He said the problem with biology is that there is so much data that it’s staggering.

Math can help organize and describe the sometimes overwhelming data and visualize it in more comprehensive ways, Keener said. The goal is to “use math with biology to understand the complexities of bioscience,” he said.

Math is already used in cardiology for such things as CAT scans, Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Positron Emission Tomography scans, and it is also used to turn signals into pictures. Mathematics is also used in monitoring blood flow and cardiac arrhythmias.

“We’re trying to understand what we don’t know through mathematics to answer biological problems,” said Amber Smith, a fourth-year doctorate student in mathematical and computer science.

Math can give a view of the heart that cannot be seen otherwise, Keener said. This is apparent in a view of cardiac arrhythmias, which can only be seen through the lens of mathematics. Math also gives people a chance to view the heart in a new way because it allows the heart to be seen in a three-dimensional way, instead of two, he said.

Pharmaceutical companies are also using math to advance medicine. They use it to build models for predictive drug studies.

Some doctors remain hesitant about the idea of mathematical biology, but more and more are becoming interested in the possible benefits, Smith said.

Mathematics is a language, Keener said. It describes some things well and others not so well. Where it works, he said, we should use it.