Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Studying Mobility and Risk

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Biomedical Science and Engineering Center are using online tools including social media to try to understand the impact of modern population migration patterns on cancer risk. 

In other words, what environmental factors change the risk of various cancers when people move from one geographic region to another? Researchers are examining case studies online, in print, and the resources of social media to develop a framework to help epidemiologists’ narrow future studies.

To do the scientific research, ORNL received grant funding for more than $1.6 million for a four year study to help them design cyber informatics tools that can search, read through, and translate large amounts of online information.

According to Georgia Tourassi, a researcher at ORNL’s lab, “There is a general movement to see how we can use social networks to not only help epidemiologists discover and monitor the spread of infectious diseases, but also answer a large range of epidemiologicasl questions specifically related to cancer.”

The researchers are going to compare information from studies and from expensive clinical trials to see if the information is similar to the information available when researchers mine online media. The goal is to demonstrate that social media can be used to answer epidemiological questions to set the stage for this type of research to be used in the cancer scientific community. 

Songhua X another researcher in the ORNL laboratory, and an expert on web intelligence and online contents mining will tailor the programs to filter out reliable stories on breast and lung cancer. The plan is to create a tool that will act like computer analysts and be capable of constantly collecting and processing information.

The next step is to link these stories with publicly available environmental data and then mine the information using artificial intelligence to search for associations where changes of migration has influenced environmental factors and cancer risk.

Collaboration with clinical specialists, cancer environmentalists, and biostatisticians from Brown University and the University of North Texas, will help ORNL researchers interpret the associations they discover.