In order to improve the lives of patients for any illness, we all know research is an essential step. We also know that the most accurate research is derived from large data sets. Since individuals are so unique, even the same illness may present itself differently among various people. Therefore, by studying a large group of individuals, we are able to better interpret how an illness may react to a specific treatment, drug, or therapy in different people.
The obvious problem when it comes to studying rare conditions, is that there simply aren’t that many individuals to study.
Astrophysics May be Able to Help Solve This Issue
Specifically, astrophysicists in Europe have been studying cystic fibrosis.
There are various medications on the market right now to help slow the progression of this degenerative disease. But they work differently for different patients and more research is needed to uncover what type of medication is best for each unique individual.
Most countries in Europe have their own data set for cystic fibrosis patients. These were merged in the European Cystic Fibrosis Society Patient Registry. However, due to the fact that data is made anonymous, the threads linking different data sets to the same patient are often broken.
Where Astrophysics Comes In
Astrophysicists often have to link disparate forms of data in order to uncover much of the information they collect about galaxies. For instance, they see a blob of light in two different telescopes and they are able to determine they are actually looking at the same object. How?
They use what they call a computational framework. By looking at the objects density, brightness, and other factors, they are able to understand that they must be the same object. So for patient data, they would look at factors like weight, gender, age, and various other genetic factors in order to determine which data sets go together. However, its not always quite that simple. For instance, someone’s weight can vary overtime which could mean inaccurate pairing for data that has been collected over a longer time period. To account for that, we look at how body mass index tends to change throughout the lifetime of a cystic fibrosis patient.
The computational framework method had promise, but it needed to be tested.
So, the algorithm was tested using the data set from Denmark, which was believed to be the most accurate of those collected by the European Cystic Fibrosis Society Patient Registry. This way, scientists could check their method against a presumably accurate list of patients.
What they found was pretty incredible. Only a few patients didn’t match up.
It was later found that the inaccuracies between the astrophysicists pairings and the list of patients from Denmark was due to human clerical errors during data entry for the Denmark list. That means that the astrophysics computational framework had been extremely successful.
So What Does it All Mean?
The hope is that by achieving more accurate data sets we can better understand what types of treatment/medications work for different types of individuals.
In the future, this understanding could drastically alter the lives of those living with cystic fibrosis or other rare conditions because we could better ensure that each patient receives the treatment that is best for them. Fingers are staying crossed as more research is done using this method!
You can read more about this study, published in PLOS One here.