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June 2004

An ounce of prevention

Researchers aim to help people live longer, healthier lives


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The focus of medicine now is on the treatment of illness rather than its prevention and detection.

by Anne Stuart

What might it mean for science and medicine if researchers could analyze biochemical data faster and more accurately?

On a personal level, what if you could track your exercise level all day long, then decide after work whether you still needed to log an hour at the gym?

Or what if you could monitor your vital signs round-the-clock, giving your physician an up-to-the-minute portrait of your body’s workings instead of the snapshot provided at your yearly physicals?

Those are just a few of the scenarios that could result from the latest research being conducted by HP Labs.

Applying IT expertise

For the past year, HP Labs scientists in Cambridge, MA, have been applying their expertise in such diverse areas as signal analysis, high-performance scalable systems, wireless mobile devices, machine learning, data search and indexing to the life sciences domain.

Their ultimate goal: "To improve the overall quality of health care while lowering the cost," says researcher Beth Logan.

The ambitious mission is a new one for the group, whose previous projects include SpeechBot , a search engine that finds and indexes spoken audio on the Internet.

"We've been changing our direction to health and life sciences because there's so much growth in that area," says Logan as she and her fellow researchers -- Amir Bar-Or, Scott Blackwell, Dave Goddeau, Jennifer Healey, Leonidas Kontothanassis, Alex Nelson, and J.M. Van Thong -- settle into a cluster of sofas and beanbag chairs in their twelfth-floor meeting space.

Elements of wellness

They don't need to look far for evidence of that growth. Before them, a low table overflows with research papers, journals, and magazines with names like Bio-It World and Circulation. Downstairs and around the corner is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a hotbed of bioscientific research; the headquarters for some of the world's leading biotech firms are within a brisk walk.

The group's current and planned research stems from four major factors affecting wellness:

  • Genomics, which examines the molecular basis for disease and medical treatment.
  • Environment, which explores how genomic factors in the air and water influence human health.
  • Lifestyle, which emphasizes methods people can use to personally monitor the impact of their daily lives on their overall wellness.
  • Health care, which focuses on ways to provide physicians with patients' comprehensive real-time physiological data and other health-care providers with mobile access to medical information and resources.

"These factors contribute equally to an individual's wellness, yet spending is totally focused on health care. The focus is on treatment of illness, rather than its prevention and early detection," says Richard Zippel, director of HP Labs' Cambridge Research Lab and technical lead for HP's efforts in wellness. (See a related video).

World-class partners

HP is already the leading supplier of computing systems for life sciences research -- the human genome was sequenced on HP computing systems -- but Zippel thinks the company can contribute much more, thanks to its expertise in areas like technical computing, mobility and database management.

"HP can have an effect on all aspects of wellness, so instead of being reactive to diseases, medicine becomes proactive," he says.

Zippel's team doesn't include any medical experts -- researchers joke about learning medicine by watching the television show "ER" -- but partners with other organizations that contribute in-depth knowledge about the scientific areas under study. The list of collaborators includes such world-class institutions as Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Womens Hospital, the Harvard Partners Center for Genetics and Genomics and The Center for the Advancement of Genomics.

Analyzing proteins to fight disease

In one such joint genomics project, HP Labs scientists are working with Boston University to develop better ways to classify proteins.

"Although scientists have obtained the sequence information for a growing number of organisms, we do not know the function of many of the proteins described by these sequences," Logan explains. "The point of our project is to get some idea of these functions by predicting protein structure," research that has long-term implications for the development of new disease-fighting drugs.

Scientists know the sequences of hundreds of thousands of proteins, but so far have identified the structures of only a few thousand. That's because these structures are so complex that analyzing them manually through biological experiments is a labor-intensive, time-consuming process. Using its machine-learning expertise, the group developed techniques for automatically classifying proteins by comparing them to a database of knowledge about known structures.

Students at Boston University have been helping to test the procedure by attempting to classify 300 to 400 proteins. Ultimately, the partners plan to establish a university-based Web site where anyone can upload a protein sequence for comparison with hundreds of known structures, with results returned in minutes by e-mail.

"Biomarkers" for disease

In another collaboration, HP has been working with Harvard Partners on a mass spectrometry project that determines the protein content of biological samples such as blood, saliva, and urine. Currently, that is a cumbersome, error-prone procedure.

"The process is so inexact that the spectrometer product is junk two-thirds of the time," says HP Labs researcher Kontothanassis.

Again using machine-learning tools, the group developed techniques for identifying useless results, eliminating them and speeding up the spectrometry process by a factor of two. Researchers sped up the process even more by searching the database of protein spectra in an intelligent manner.

Ultimately, the group hopes to use mass spectrometry to quickly and accurately identify "biomarkers" for disease in biological samples.

"Sick people and well people may have different concentrations of proteins in their blood, for example," Logan says. "The hope is that if we can refine this technique, we'll be able to use it for diagnosis."

Monitoring physiological data

On the health and lifestyle front, the lab is experimenting with methods for monitoring human physiology, typically storing information for later analysis. Using their signal-analysis and system architecture background, the researchers on the BioStream Project are building an interface that can collect patient physiological data (primarily electrocardiogram signals, blood pressure, temperature and weight) and analyze it for indications of problems or illness.

Researchers see multiple applications for that capability. Hospital emergency-room teams might use the data for triage, determining which incoming patients need treatment first -- a natural extension of HP's existing solutions for hospitals. Individuals might constantly monitor their activity levels, making health and lifestyle choices accordingly -- deciding, for instance, whether to end the day with a strenuous workout or just a brisk walk.

Better data for better health

A third application would be a home monitor for patients with actual or suspected heart problems. A five-minute electrocardiogram in a doctor's office "is a snapshot of your heart," says HP researcher Healey. "Based on that, doctors must make a diagnosis. Sometimes they can, but some diseases require longer to detect."

In conjunction with others at Hewlett Packard, the wellness researchers are developing a system that could monitor patients at home for weeks or months at a time, allowing physicians to pinpoint problems earlier.

"Our vision is that in the future you will be monitoring all your vital functions 24 x 7," says Van Thong. "Once you are able to gather these physical signals for a long period of time, you would be able to do preventative health care, or respond more quickly when there's a problem."

While the group's work encompasses a diverse, complex, and growing range of life-science initiatives, all of their efforts are focused on a single desired outcome: helping people live longer, healthier lives.

Related links

» Harvard Partners press release

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