In a world where knowledge about health and bioscience problems is informed by an ever-accelerating flow of complex data, and where health care expenses are rising dramatically, the key to unlocking solutions and driving down costs lies in sophisticated computational techniques.
That's the argument of Jan van Santen, head of the Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at Oregon Health & Science University's OGI School of Science & Engineering. This year, the department is launching a new "Computational Bioscience" track designed to equip students with the skill set required to develop new technologies for health and bioscience contexts.
In designing the computational bioscience track, van Santen and his colleagues solicited input through an industry survey. They found that not only are leading high tech companies are investing more in researching and developing health and bioscience technologies, but that requirements for engineers working on those technologies are evolving.
"There's no functional difference in the core engineering skills required to solve these kinds of problems," says van Santen. "What matters is the ability to work in interdisciplinary teams, broad knowledge of the landscape of bioscience issues, and specialized knowledge about how to apply core engineering skills to those emerging problem sets."
Students in the OHSU's new computational bioscience track will be enrolled in the the only department of computer science and electrical engineering in the U.S. formally located inside an academic health center. That provides an unprecedented opportunity to work in teams with bioscience researchers and health care providers.
The track consists of courses in three basic areas: core learning in adaptive systems, health- and bioscience-intensives, and specialized material applying adaptive systems approaches to health and bioscience problems. Additional management-focused courses are also offered through the school's Department of Management in Science and Technology.
"Computational bioscience is a natural bridge between high tech and health care," says Ed Thompson, Ph.D., dean of the School of Science & Engineering. "It's a clear example of where these two key regional industries are developing synergies, and where we can play a logical and important role in fostering linkages between them."
Health care spending in the U.S. is rising at an extraordinarily rapid pace. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicate that health care expenditures currently account for 16 percent of the U.S. economy--or more than two trillion dollars a year--and projections are that spending will increase to 20 percent of the economy by 2015.
Technology, says van Santen, can not only solve important health and bioscience problems, but it can help reduce those skyrocketing costs. By developing new algorithms or improving existing ones, researchers in his department and the Center for Spoken Language Understanding, which he also directs, are supplying the basic components of entirely new kinds of software.
In one example, they are developing algorithms that detect subtle behavioral markers--in speech, language, or gait, for instance--and accurately diagnose neurological disorders like autism and cognitive decline. In another, pattern recognition techniques are enabling an entirely new approach to immune-system research being conducted at OHSU's Casey Eye Institute.
"The effect of these algorithms can be extraordinary," van Santen says. "Computation enables bioscience research that could not be done otherwise, and transforms the delivery of health care."
Instead of buying the latest million-dollar machine, for example, a hospital can simply upgrade an inexpensive software program run on a PC. Or, in the example of cognitive decline, instead of requiring patients to undergo a costly trip to a series of specialty physicians who can only diagnose cognitive health once a month, researchers can set up an unobtrusive household monitoring system that constantly collects data and makes it available to family, local caregivers and primary care physicians.
New courses developed for the computational bioscience track include an introduction to biomedical imaging, biological and linguistic sequence analysis, and analysis of biomedical signals.
The biomedical imaging course focuses on developing new ways to use the output of biomedical imaging. Biological and linguistic sequence analysis takes techniques developed for speech recognition and applies them to other bioscience research, such as proteomics and genomics. Analysis of biomedical signals starts with signals like EEGs and EKGs and helps students understand how the application of powerful algorithms can result in the discovery of new diagnostic markers.
The computational bioscience track is open to qualified part-time students from the area high tech industry as well those at any of OHSU's four professional schools.