A Formulaic Approach: How Mathematics is Impacting Healthcare
In the world, there is one language that is universal to every culture. It doesn’t change regardless of where you are or what you believe. It’s hidden in plain sight and you use it every day whether you like it or not. It’s Mathematics.
The fact that Mathematics is a language that all can understand isn’t an altogether novel idea. Carl Sagan, an American astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, and astrobiologist, used the idea as the basis for his book, turned movie, Contact. In his book, the main character states that “Mathematics is the only true universal language.” For the purpose of his novel, he justifies the thought and this was also showcased in the film adaptation of the book.
When a strange signal is intercepted by a listening station in the desert, Dr. Ellie Arroway quickly discerns that it is providing a list of prime numbers–the first 100 of them to be exact. In case you don’t remember prime numbers from school, and you wouldn’t be the only one, a prime number is a whole number greater than 1, whose only two whole-number factors are one and itself. This means the first 10 prime numbers are 2,3,5,7,11,13,17,19, 23 and 29 because they not be divided evenly by any whole number. So, why would an alien race choose math, let alone prime numbers, to be what they use to make their initial contact with Earth? Plus, the internet magazine devoted to math, shared the reasoning.
“The indivisibility of prime numbers by any number other than themselves and one is a universal truth. We know it, and so should any other creatures of comparable or greater intelligence.”
Sensationalized as the idea may have been made in the movie, the fact of the matter remains true. Math is constant. 1+1 will always equal two. 2+2 will never equal five. A new equation, however, may one day equal better vaccines.
The belief is that mathematical principles can be applied to better understand biological entities. Should that happen, many have theorized that it could drastically transform the way we look at preventing and treating viral diseases with a potentially safer way to develop vaccines and medicines.
The research on this started more than a half-century ago by James Watson and Francis Crick. The two came up with a possible explanation for what’s always been a complex problem. Here’s an excerpt from an article in Wired that discusses the complexity of the task.
“Viruses consist of a short string of DNA or RNA packaged in a protein shell called a capsid, which protects the genomic material and facilitates its insertion into a host cell. Of course, the genomic material has to encode for the formation of such a capsid, and longer strands of DNA or RNA require larger capsids to shield them. It didn’t seem possible that strands as short as those found in viruses could achieve this.”
To understand that, let’s look at everything that makes up a virus. Britannica gives a strong definition that’s a little bit easier to understand. When considering an entire virus particle, or a virion, you must look at the outer protein shell, this is the capsid discussed above, and the nucleic acid that rests within it. If you looked at a virion under extreme magnification, you might confuse it with a twenty-sided die. That’s because the capsid surrounding the virus would be a twenty-sided icosahedron. Remember those from Geometry?
Here you can see how it is polygonal in shape.: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-vector/mimivirus-structure-virions-mimi-virus-particles-211839160?src=mameSrq4kco24JXk6AEilQ-1-57)
This is great information to have, but the complexity of an icosahedron (pronounced: ahy-koh-suh-hee-druh n) made it difficult to fully understand and recognize when you were looking at the virion from different angles under a microscope. Using a variety of additional recent mathematical equations and discoveries, which you can find links to learn more about on our blog, helped inform researchers of how the protein subunits of capsids were oriented. This, ultimately, also provided a framework for how the subunits interacted with each other and with the genomic material inside. This was a key breakthrough in the research.
“I think this is where we made a very big contribution,” said Reidun Twarock, a mathematician at the University of York in England. “By knowing about the symmetry of the container, you can understand better determinants of the asymmetric organization of the genomic material [and] constraints on how it must be organized. We were the first to actually float the idea that there should be order, or remnants of that order, in the genome.”
Mathematics, rather than science, helped researchers better understand the way that viruses were constructed. It becomes much easier to tear something down if you know how, and why, it’s formed. While curing disease would be an obvious application for using such data the research team is more focused on preventative medicine rather than curative. Today, the number of vaccines that exist is minute in comparison to the number of severe illnesses and infections that one can fall ill from. This research could help scientists vaccinate against hundreds of viruses, whereas, today, available vaccines only number in the dozens.
Traditionally, vaccines are based on one of two different methods. The first involves viruses that have been killed off and injected that the body is still able to recognize. The second involves using weakened viruses that the immune system should be able to easily stave off. One version only offers a short-lived immunity, while the latter poses the risk of becoming a serious risk if it becomes virulent and the body can’t fight it off. Thanks to this mathematical research we may soon have a third option. Rather than approach these breakthroughs as a way to destroy a virus, why not use it to learn how to build a synthetic virus that scientists could control and the body could easily fight off? Quanta magazine, a publication focused on developments in mathematics, theoretical physics, theoretical computer science and the basic life sciences.explains just what this could mean for the global population.
“By understanding capsid formation, it may be possible to engineer virus-like particles (VLPs) with synthetic RNA. These particles would not be able to replicate, but they would allow the immune system to recognize viral protein structures. Theoretically, VLPs could be safer than attenuated live viruses and might provide greater protection for longer periods than do chemically inactivated viruses.”
At this point, it’s unclear whether or not these types of manufactured viruses would be impacted by temperature differently than a standard vaccine. As we’ve talked about in the past, a number of vaccines are unable to be freeze-dried and need to be kept as close to 40°F as possible. Vaccines like this have been the topic of in-depth testing to determine the potency of the medicine after freezing. The results haven’t been promising.
“A freeze-thaw test on four batches of tetanus showed a 14.5% regression in potency following a single freeze-thaw and a 61.5% regression after two rounds of freezing. Similar tests have shown comparable results across a variety of different inoculations.”
What may be unsurprising to you after reading this far, is that math plays a major role in a vaccine’s degradation. That’s because of what is known as the Arrhenius equation. In 1889 Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius proved a mathematical equation that suggested a reaction rate was dependent on environmental conditions. Here’s an excerpt from a piece we published last year on the topic.
“A reaction can involve any number of criteria, like the oxidation of iron or the combustion of cellulose in a fire, but has been extremely important in industries like food and medicine. That’s because it has helped the food industry better understand spoilage and the world of pharmaceuticals to predict the shelf life of their reagents and medications. In both cases, the shelf life decreases as the temperature elevates. According to an article in the 2014 issue of Biologicals, this makes it imperative to monitor the environment in the world of healthcare whenever a vaccine is involved.”
While mathematics may be a universal language, a language that is universal within many industries is that of compliance. The risks to society are real when compliance initiatives aren’t met. It’s why we work so hard to help our customers measure their environment and meet their regulations, and why we’ve worked to simplify the process. It’s why your company plus Dickson equals compliance. That’s a universal equation we can all understand.