Can newly discovered biology 'law' save lives?

Nov 02, 2011 By Joel N. Shurkin
Physicians now use pattern recognition -- experience with prior patients and intuition -- to make predictions. Using a new formula, it may be possible to catch a patient who is deviating from what would normally be happening. Credit: Jo Naylor via flickr

What if doctors in the intensive care unit could predict if and when a patient was about to go into cardiac arrest? They could then be ready when it happened.

A group of researchers are working on just such a technique as they attempt to solve a profound philosophical question: Are there natural laws of biology just as there are for physics? It is a classic case of pure scientific research leading to practical solutions no one anticipated.

Even elementary students know some of the laws of physics, many of them going back to in the 17th century, such as that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, better known as Newton's Third Law of Motion, not to mention Einstein's E=mc2. Why doesn't biology?

"Biologists don't seek mathematical descriptions the way physicists do," said Michael Deem, of Rice University's BioScience Research Collaborative in Houston. Deem is part of a 20-team project funded by the to change that.

He arrived at "Deem's Law" in 2007. Now, other researchers have demonstrated its potential in a cardiology clinic at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. The law can be described as a formula, although one with less panache than Einstein's famous formula for relativity: PE=M'/R. In English, that means when parts of a complex , such as proteins in a , interact with one another, how much interaction there is determines the system's ability to thrive or evolve in the face of environmental stress (PE). How much interaction is measured by a property called modularity, or M prime in the equation. R represents the system's ability to thrive.

The more stress, the more modularity is required to adapt and thrive. Deem said that the law not only applies to biology, but to such things as social networks, physiology and even economics, where he has tested it out in analyzing trade networks.

According to Deem, to measure modularity you could for instance measure whether proteins in a cell interact with each other. Every interacting protein pair could count as a one in a modularity chart; every one that did not would get a zero, a way of quantifying the degree of interaction. Simple systems would have very few interactions; complex ones would have many.

Environmental stresses would include such things as changes in temperature or pressure or acidity.

A beating heart is a complex system. At Emory, they plugged Deem's Law into a computer monitoring data from patients during a stress test on a treadmill. At regular intervals, they increased the speed of the treadmill and its angle, putting added stress on the heart.

The computer found modularity in the heartbeats and so was able to predict what the hearts would do a few minutes later. In theory, at least, that would work in an ICU.

"What Michael has done has given us the first wedge towards the type of predictive power we have for the weather," said Tim Buchman of Emory's Center for Critical Care.

Forecasts are generally accurate because meteorologists have huge amounts of data, powerful computers and several to rely on. Physicians have the first two when treating a patient. It was the third thing they lacked.

Physicians now use pattern recognition -- experience with prior patients and intuition -- to make predictions. Using Deem's formula, Buchman said, it is possible to catch a patient who is deviating from what would normally be happening.

"Those are the ones that bear looking at," Buchman said.

Other researchers think the work is valuable but requires some caution.

"It is a rational scientific approach but will be tough to verify," said Tom Raffin, professor emeritus of medicine and biomedical ethics, and former director of the at Stanford University Hospital. "It will require at least a decade of expensive clinical studies."

Deem's theory would have to be shown to do a better job than current techniques, Raffin said.

On the other hand, Raffin said, "It would probably help somewhat since not all physicians are highly skilled."

Explore further: Noted researchers warn that biomedical research system in US is unsustainable

Source: Inside Science News Service

4.9 /5 (10 votes)

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kaasinees
1 / 5 (4) Nov 02, 2011
This article might have gotten 5/5 with 3 votes but just think about the possible negative impact of this.
Insurance companies use risks calculating all the time to make people pay more and get less back.
I am even wondering why i am still paying for insurance, rarely anything happens to me and most medicine i have to pay for myself anyway plus the money i save from not paying insurance could let me purchase more/better medicine anyway.
Hospitals have the obligation to save my life, if they don't its man-slaughter. If i ever need an expensive operation, yet again the insurance company might not pay for it.
Temple
5 / 5 (5) Nov 02, 2011
@kaaasinees:
Insurance companies use risks calculating all the time to make people pay more and get less back. I am even wondering why i am still paying for insurance, rarely anything happens to me and most medicine i have to pay for myself anyway plus the money i save from not paying insurance could let me purchase more/better medicine anyway.
Hospitals have the obligation to save my life, if they don't its man-slaughter. If i ever need an expensive operation, yet again the insurance company might not pay for it.


Why is it that in the US (I assume) people expect private insurance companies to look out for their health and financial welfare? And why do they think that the government recognizing free health-care as a Basic Human Right would be about the most evil thing ever to happen?

There is another way. Megacorporations don't have to have the final say on whether you can get a medical treatment. It could be a fundamental right.
Nerdyguy
not rated yet Nov 02, 2011
"Are there natural laws of biology just as there are for physics? It is a classic case of pure scientific research leading to practical solutions no one anticipated."

Could there be a bigger "duh" question than the one asked here?

First, Biology does not stand alone and separate from the physical world, thus the underlying principles of physics apply to it as well. Indeed, they are the underlying principles which chemistry, biology, etc. build upon.

Second, this isn't exactly a new question. Several hundred years of man's efforts towards developing an understanding of the rudiments of biology attest to that. But, perhaps they're right to suggest that more scientific rigor is necessary. I often think this after leaving my doctor's office. More often than not, it's "take some aspirin".

Nerdyguy
not rated yet Nov 02, 2011
This article might have gotten 5/5 with 3 votes but just think about the possible negative impact of this.
Insurance companies use risks calculating all the time to make people pay more and get less back.
I am even wondering why i am still paying for insurance, rarely anything happens to me and most medicine i have to pay for myself anyway plus the money i save from not paying insurance could let me purchase more/better medicine anyway.
Hospitals have the obligation to save my life, if they don't its man-slaughter. If i ever need an expensive operation, yet again the insurance company might not pay for it.


Then why in the world would you pay for health insurance? Sounds like you don't need it and are needlessly wasting your cash.
Nerdyguy
1 / 5 (2) Nov 02, 2011
"Why is it that in the US (I assume) people expect private insurance companies to look out for their health and financial welfare? And why do they think that the government recognizing free health-care as a Basic Human Right would be about the most evil thing ever to happen?

There is another way. Megacorporations don't have to have the final say on whether you can get a medical treatment. It could be a fundamental right." - Temple

It's hard to tell if you are serious with these questions, or merely trolling to get some heated debate going. You also didn't mention if you were an American. I'd be curious.

I have yet to meet anyone who would consider free healthcare as evil. That tends to be a term thrown around by far-left types attempting to vilify others in lieu of proposing a real argument.

But, I do believe that the vast majority of Americans would like to know how free healthcare could be paid for, when we are bankrupt.
Nerdyguy
1 / 5 (2) Nov 02, 2011
@temple:

One further point re: free healthcare. It is interesting to look at the historical timeline as it relates to this issue. Sometimes, timing is everything.

For instance, until about 50 years ago, modern medicine was still reliant on wishful thinking more often than science. So few expensive procedures were available because we didn't have the science or technology to perform them. Healthcare for all during 1950, for example, might have been a more easy sell.

Today, the environment has changed drastically. We are within a stone's throw of the ability to dramatically extend our lives. And the science to do so is extraordinarily expensive. So, in a world where I can change my gender, increase my breast size, and use botox so I can look better, the economic ramifications of free healthcare are significantly greater.
Temple
not rated yet Nov 02, 2011
@Nerdyguy:
So, in a world where I can change my gender, increase my breast size, and use botox so I can look better, the economic ramifications of free healthcare are significantly greater.


Straw man. Nobody would advocate for the government offering *any* medical procedure for free. None of the hundreds of countries with free basic healthcare do offer this. Obviously only a subset that consists of Necessary Basic Healthcare can be covered (this distinction of what's in and out already happens, but by the for-profit insurers).

Suggesting that Healthcare as Basic Human Right would bankrupt a country is a fallacy. A country has to decide where to spend its Billions. It shocks me that the US decides that of all the Billions and Billions it spends, the right to necessary basic medical care isn't a high enough priority compared to some of the stuff that is paid for by the government. It's a key part of the foundational right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness".
Temple
5 / 5 (2) Nov 02, 2011
On a purely ideological basis, a very important part of a government's purpose should be to ensure that:

1. Nobody is refused necessary care because they are too poor.
2. Nobody goes bankrupt because they got sick or hurt.

The sad truth is that both of those happen far, far too often in the US. The rest of the world's population can't understand why people in the US allow that to happen to themselves.

Just looking at what is being chosen for funding over those priorities can make one sick.
Nerdyguy
not rated yet Nov 02, 2011
@Temple:

I find your argument compelling. But I'm easy, as I'm one of the few conservatives who happens to agree that, in an advanced nation, (very) basic health needs should be part of the "common good". And, in many ways, that is already the case, via programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and the VA.

Nonetheless, the comment I made earlier was not that healthcare would bankrupt us. It was that we are ALREADY bankrupt. Making this a very bad time for someone to come along with a plan that has a hefty price tag. The idea of nationalized "anything" in this country faces a difficult uphill battle (and I'm usually part of the hill), but the timing on this by the Obama administration and the Democrats was just plain awful. I mean awful in historical terms.
Nerdyguy
1 / 5 (2) Nov 02, 2011
On a purely ideological basis, a very important part of a government's purpose should be to ensure that:

1. Nobody is refused necessary care because they are too poor.
2. Nobody goes bankrupt because they got sick or hurt.

The sad truth is that both of those happen far, far too often in the US. The rest of the world's population can't understand why people in the US allow that to happen to themselves.

Just looking at what is being chosen for funding over those priorities can make one sick.


Saying that "the rest of the world's population can't understand" is a bit of a stretch.

The fact is, a small handful of countries, primarily peers of the U.S., with strong (relatively) economies and a penchant for socialist programs, consider the U.S. position odd.

Beyond that, the VAST majority of countries piss all over their own citizens and truly do not give a crap about basic healthcare in any meaningful way. Just to put it in perspective.
Nerdyguy
1 / 5 (1) Nov 02, 2011
@Temple:

I failed to add, in my post re: the Obama Administration's timing, that the content of the plan, as well as the politics played with it, were also major contributors to the present outcome.

The plan was poorly designed and literally shoved through Congress over huge opposition from many in the U.S. A good way to guarantee failure.
kaasinees
1 / 5 (2) Nov 02, 2011
Then why in the world would you pay for health insurance? Sounds like you don't need it and are needlessly wasting your cash.

It is required by law in my country.

Why is it that in the US


I don't know about the US i don't live there.

There is another way. Megacorporations don't have to have the final say on whether you can get a medical treatment. It could be a fundamental right.


Yes they do, they decide which operations and medicine they pay for.

And why do they think that the government recognizing free health-care as a Basic Human Right would be about the most evil thing ever to happen?


We have it here, it is evil. They make us pay (a minimum of 110 euro). But if i need to buy medicine or need a treatment i am still paying half of the treatment or medicine. But it has a lot to do with out current government.
kaasinees
1 / 5 (2) Nov 02, 2011
110 euro minimum per month that is.
Nerdyguy
not rated yet Nov 03, 2011
110 euro minimum per month that is.


It is interesting to compare that to my situation. For my family of 5, we pay about $500 per month ($363 Euro) out of pocket. The plan itself is around $1,500 per month, with my wife's company paying the balance. I am self-employed. For me to purchase a plan directly would cost much, much more.

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