Researchers collaborate to help fight disease

November 17, 2005, vol. 34, no. 6
By Carol Thorbes

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A budding collaboration between Michel Joffres and Martin Ester exemplifies the kind of academic cross-pollination that Simon Fraser University's faculty of health sciences wants its new appointees to foster.

Dr. Joffres, a medical doctor and epidemiologist recently appointed to the faculty, has spent much of his career building a unique goldmine of data on different populations. As one of the architects of a national database of cardiovascular risk factors, Joffres helped provincial and federal health ministries develop preventive programs to reduce heart disease.

Following the diagnosis and treatment of his wife Christine for breast cancer in 2002, Joffres wanted to start a different goldmine of data. This would be the first national database to cross-reference and isolate meaningful patterns in breast cancer research. Joffres needed to partner with a database gold miner. He found the perfect partner in Ester, an SFU health sciences research associate and professor of computing science who specializes in data mining. They met at a reception for the faculty's new appointees in October 2005.

“I want to know what is the probability of having a positive biopsy once a mammogram is rated as suspect,” says Joffres. “What is the probability of a suspect mammogram showing an invasive type of cancer? What is the survival rate at each step of the diagnostic and treatment process? We have a lot of data already on these questions, but they are not consolidated into a national database that would allow us to answer multiple questions.”

Ester is one of 33 SFU scientists whose interest in applying their discipline to solving healthcare problems has inspired them to become health science research associates.

“Since my area of research, data mining, is very application oriented, I am always looking for new, challenging applications,” says Ester. “By integrating data about health-related factors from different sources and analyzing them with state-of-the-art methods we can make a real difference in the health of people in B.C. and Canada.”

He adds, “This interdisciplinary research teaches me to think outside of the box of pure computer science and helps me to identify new, promising directions of database research.”

To Joffres, Ester is an invaluable collaborator. “We need basic data to understand factors that influence population health,” notes Joffres. “We also need the ability to link this data to other databases, which then give us better insights into the factors we need to target to prevent diseases such as breast cancer.”

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