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Biomedical Informatics Center
UCLA Engineer - UCLA Biomedical Informatics Center
UCLA Engineer - Spring 2004

Biomedical Informatics Center:
New Approaches to Collecting and Managing Medical Data

by Marlys Amundson

In spite of major technological developments in medicine in the last 10 years, physicians still rely primarily on individual meetings with their patients to make diagnoses and gather information on new diseases and treatments. When a patient sees her doctor, the physician makes a diagnosis, determines the severity of the illness, recommends treatment, and may come away with a better understanding of an illness. This method of treatment, however, does not lead to a widespread gain of knowledge, as medical information is isolated and inconsistently recorded. It is difficult, for instance, to request data showing all patients with a specific type of cancer in a given population.

But a new interdisciplinary research center at UCLA hopes to change all that. By applying scientific methods to the collection of medical data, UCLA Biomedical Informatics Center (UBIC) researchers hope to fundamentally transform how information is acquired and managed, leading to a better understanding of diseases and treatments.

Until a way is found to effectively and automatically manage the full range of medical data by computers, say UBIC researchers, it will not be possible to realize a full understanding of fundamental biomedical processes.

“Despite significant changes to health care and tremendous technical advances in medicine and the sciences, there has been no convergence of the fields to solve this central problem,” explained radiology and pediatrics professor Hooshang Kangarloo, director of the Medical Informatics program at UCLA. “Everyone is approaching the problem from independent angles. Our central question was, ‘How do we get the collective brainpower together to solve the fundamental problem?’ We believe the sum of contributions by the UBIC researchers is far more than they could contribute individually.”

UBIC researchers (l to r) Professors Bill Kaiser, Hooshang Kangarloo, Alex Bui, and Denise Aberle

UBIC is a collaborative venture between the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science and the David Geffen School of Medicine that plans to meet the biomedical information needs of the 21st century through development of new technologies, fostering world-class research in engineering, imaging, and informatics. The Center is led by Kangarloo, bioengineering chairman Carlo Montemagno, and electrical engineering professor Bill Kaiser, and involves 10 researchers from engineering, 13 from medicine, and colleagues at the University of Southern California and Cedars Sinai.

The central challenge facing UBIC’s researchers is that computers only understand and manage structured data, but the majority of information generated in research and medical environments is largely unstructured.

Researchers in the Center will look for innovative ways to acquire and manage this unstructured data, extracting new knowledge from the cellular level to population-based studies. Their goal is to develop the tools necessary to transform clinical practice into a controlled research environment, where information gathered through targeted sampling of cells and tissue, wearable sensor systems, and patient-physician interactions is all quantifiable.

Two characteristic technologies of the late 20th century were information technology and advances in biology that allowed researchers to manipulate cells at the molecular level. The characteristic technology of the 21st century will be the merger of these two disciplines, which will lead to a very broad range of new applications, many of which cannot yet be envisioned.

“The School recognizes the potential impact of this new technology - biomedical informatics - including such applications as improved medical diagnostics and medical systems tailored to individuals rather than to groups,” explained Associate Dean of Research and Physical Resources Greg Pottie. “We are very enthusiastic and supportive of new research activities such as the Biomedical Informatics Center that link medicine and information technologies.”

UCLA’s Chancellor, Albert Carnesale, and the Dean of Engineering, Vijay K. Dhir, both strongly support interdisciplinary research and education, which has helped make UCLA a fertile area for collaborative activity. UCLA engineering faculty from several disciplines are involved in the Center: Abeer Alwan, Alex Bui, Adnan Darwiche, Kaiser, Montemagno, Pottie, Vwani Roychowdhury, Majid Sarrafzadeh, Ali Sayed, and Ben Wu.

The Center’s core areas of research are nanotechnologies; mobile sensing and computing; management, design and modeling of networked systems; probabilistic data modeling and visualization; and translating natural language text and images into computer understandable data. UBIC researchers are developing protocols for a Bayesian network and applying peer-to-peer network knowledge for routing acquired information through the system.

"We are developing new research opportunities through applications that are driven by medical informatics," said Kaiser. "We take advantage of progress in wearable computing. However, the work by our team differs substantially from past efforts in the area in that it is driven by new requirements and a new architecture that meets the needs of medical informatics. This combines technologies from adaptive signal processing through automated reasoning and low power systems, but most importantly addresses the unique requirements of objective diagnostics."

Medicine is currently event driven - patients are days or weeks into their illness before they seek help from their physicians. The methods proposed by the UBIC team would allow medical researchers to examine chronic illnesses over time regardless of the patient’s location, helping identify a change in the patient’s condition more quickly.

UBIC member Carlo Montemagno, chair of Bioengineering
“Information technology is central to any meaningful advances in engineering, and this is even truer when applying engineering and technology to medicine than any other field,” noted Montemagno. “Information has to be assembled from diverse sources and in many forms - the language and descriptive terminology in medicine is as alien as a foreign language to engineers. Medical informatics serves as an adaptor between medical professionals and investigators in science and engineering.”

There are currently 18 NIH funded and approved medical informatics training programs in the country, but UCLA’s is the only one that is so closely aligned with an engineering program. The close ties between the fields at UCLA help to make the collaboration envisioned by UBIC both feasible and practical.

“"Medical informatics provides the ability to process and understand diverse data sources, while engineering can add additional data sources that include continuous sensor monitoring,” explained Kaiser. “Progress in embedded networked sensors and technology development at UCLA’s Center for Embedded Networked Sensing will enable what was previously elusive. Now we can build, scale, connect, and meet the energy constraints of wearable computers, something that wouldn’t have been available even five years ago.”

This year 17 students from computer science, biomedical engineering, and electrical engineering are taking medical informatics courses. The Center hopes to train more future biomedical scientists, and is developing graduate degree programs as part of Biomedical Engineering Inter-departmental training program as well.

“The biomedical informatics program allows us to train students and foster new research. A solid educational program is the key to engineering of new technologies and can also identify what new technologies will be necessary,” said Montemagno. “We also will offer optional courses for our bioengineering undergraduates in the medical informatics field.”

Engineering students will go through clinical rotations and have the opportunity to see the importance of their contributions to the field of medicine in this growing field of research.

“By this time next year, we’ll have developed a true research community, as well as a core competency for future scholars,” said Kangarloo. “Technology will be used to reduce the expenses of health care in the future - it simply requires focus and energy.”

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