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Eradicating Ebola with mathematics

Posted November 28, 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.

Next week, leading Australian and international experts will converge at Monash University’s Caulfield campus for the annual BioInfoSummer symposium.

They will 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.

Monash University Professor Kate Smith-Miles, Director of MAXIMA (Monash Academy for Cross and Interdisciplinary Mathematical Applications), said mathematics provided a universal language.

“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,” Professor Smith-Miles said.

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.

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.

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.

Source: Monash University

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