Mathematical Bioengineering at MBI, 2007–08

October 21, 2007

The theme of the 2007–08 program at the Mathematical Biosciences Institute, Ohio State University, is mathematical bioengineering. "Bioengineering lies at the interfaces of biology, the applied sciences and engineering," says MBI director Avner Friedman; "it offers opportunities for mathematicians in building mathematical models and setting principles drawn from all these disciplines."

The year began with a workshop on metabolic engineering. "Metabolic engineering seeks to change the metabolism and physiology of an organism to suit the needs or desires of the farmer, the breeder, the genetic engineer, and the scientist," says Michael Savageau, one of the organizers. Despite recent major activities in this area, he says, advances have been limited because of very limited understanding of the physiology and metabolism of most organisms. "There are numerous biological and, increasingly, mathematical challenges." The workshop focused on new developments in measurement technologies for generating data, in mathematical modeling, in molecular tools, such as actuators and regulators, and in system control and redesign.

An October workshop will be devoted to cell and tissue engineering. "The challenges of tissue engineering include the need to overcome mass transport limitation, and to exploit biophysical stimuli in enhancing engineering tissue function," says co-organizer Melissa Knothe Tate. Cell and tissue engineers will join computational modelers at the workshop, with goals of bridging specific cell and tissue types as well as model platforms, and "recognizing common challenges and relevant strategies for addressing these challenges in tissues as diverse as bone, nerve, tendon, kidney and blood vessels." The workshop will highlight the promise of predictive modeling in accelerating advances in tissue engineering, Knothe Tate says.

Andre Levchenko is the organizer of a mid-November workshop on microfluids. Recent developments in micro- and nano-technology have created opportunities for significantly more control in definition of the micro-environment of single cells and cell ensembles," he says. "As a result, applications of microfluidics in the analysis of live cells have sky-rocketed, creating fertile ground for renewed interest in tight integration of mathematical and experimental biology." The workshop will introduce mathematical biologists to the promise and recent developments in the microfluidic analysis of live cells and tissues; experimentalists working on microfluidic applications to biological research will be exposed to the power of mathematical treatment in biology.

The winter program will be devoted to bio-neuro-mechanics--muscle and the whole body. "Biological movement is governed by a complex interplay between the central nervous system and the musculoskeletal system," says Art Kuo, co-organizer of a workshop on the topic. The collaboration between sensors, actuators, limbs, and neurons is a systems problem, he explains. While the physiology of these components is increasingly understood in quantitative terms, their dynamics are not well understood, especially when they interact. "It is critical for experts in areas such as muscle physiology, body and limb mechanics, and neurophysiology to share knowledge, not only in descriptive terms, but also in a mathematical language amenable to a systems approach."

A related winter workshop, on the neuromechanics of locomotion, will explore the deceptively simple question of how animals move. "Locomotion emerges from complex interactions among animals' neural, sensory and motor systems, their muscle–body dynamics, and their environments," says Philip Holmes, a co-organizer. This workshop, he says, will bring together three components: "the role of central pattern generators in the control of locomotion, proprioceptive feedback in intra-limb and interlimb coordination for shaping locomotory patterns, and biomechanical studies focusing on body–limb–environment dynamics." Each has generated rich mathematical models, he adds, "and our aim is to integrate them into a coherent whole."

Closely connected to these winter workshops is an early-spring workshop on real-time brain interfacing applications. The field of neural engineering has been transformed in the last several years by the growth in computer processing power, says co-organizer Dawn Taylor: It is now possible to read in multiple neural signals, process those signals, and respond to that processed data in real time. "The capability to interact with the nervous system in real time has great potential for development of new treatments for neurological disorders as well as enabling new experimental studies to further our understanding of the nervous system." Taylor cites such areas as direct brain control of assistive devices for the paralyzed, in which real-time interaction can result in improved therapies or treatment. Workshop themes include practical issues for real-time decoding of neural signals and such applications as restoration of movement to paralyzed individuals, therapeutic deep brain stimulation, and detection and intervention for epilepsy.

With the advent of faster, more accurate, and cheaper imaging modalities, medical imaging has undergone a revolution in the past decade, says Allen Tannenbaum, co-organizer of a June 2008 workshop on brain imaging. This powerful new hardware has driven the need for corresponding software development, which in turn has provided a major impetus for new algorithms in signal and image processing. "Many of these algorithms are based on PDEs, curvature-driven flows, geometry, and novel statistical techniques," Tannenbaum says; the multidisciplinary workshop will bring together researchers from all aspects of medical imaging, with the emphasis on brain imaging, to share views and, possibly, open new research directions. Workshop topics include medical imaging modalities for brain imagery, medical image processing and computation, mathematical algorithms, and applications in pathology and image-guided surgery.

The year-long program will end with a workshop on systems biology for decision making. Co-organizer Kevin Passino explains that as experimental biology uncovers the mechanisms supporting decision-making in individual animals, such as monkeys, and social animal groups, such as bees and ants, multiscale mathematical models are being developed and validated for such species. The workshop is intended to facilitate the development of an integrated systems biology of decision-making processes that spans multiple spatiotemporal scales and levels of biological organization, and accounts for the perspectives of biologists, psychologists, economists, mathematicians, and engineers.

"A common feature of the topics chosen, and indeed, of much of bioengineering, is their integrative nature," Friedman says. "Biological systems are unavoidably complex, and mathematics can reveal common principles operating on different time and space scales, and guide the development of computational algorithms so that new knowledge can be gained by simulation and data analysis."

Detailed information about all workshops scheduled for the academic-year 2007–08 program on mathematical bioengineering can be found at

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