The University of Southampton

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

Published: 9 October 2015

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 and including researchers from Electronics and Computer Science (ECS), 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. 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.

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.

“Obviously, I am delighted we won this grant,” said Professor Mahesan Niranjan, a co-investigator in the proposal and Deputy Head of Department of ECS. “As in many similar grants funded at ECS, this success is testimony to the ease with which we are able to work across traditional discipline boundaries, identifying and solving challenging data analysis problems.

“A particular appeal to me is the collaboration with the School of Mathematics. When you want to go beyond simply applying off-the shelf machine learning tools to data in a problem domain and develop deep insights into the behaviour of computational models, or be able to make formal statements about their limitations, where else would you look other than Mathematics – the Queen of all Sciences?”

Jacek added: “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. 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.”

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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