Graphs, Disease and Mental Health

During my last visit to DC I had the great pleasure of meeting CPT Benjamin Kirkup, a Microbiologist at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research's Department of Wound Infections. CPT Kirkup had invited me to his laboratory to discuss how "big data" could help their mission: combat new and virulent strains of drug resistant infectious diseases. Having not taken a biology class since high school (truly), I was both surprised and honored by the invitation.

As we began to discuss more of the lab's work, CPT Kirkup described the changing strategies and challenges for combatting infection. He noted that while the care received by soldiers has greatly improved over the last several decades; with respect to first-aid, surgery and rehabilitation, there is serious concern about the spread of drug resistant diseases&mmdash;both at the individual level (a patient) or group (platoon, etc.). These diseases have much longer-term effects, often lasting past the point of physical recovery.

As an example, CPT Kirkup described to me a scenario whereby a solider is treated after being victim to an IED attack. Given the nature of these attacks, this frequently requires partial amputation of a limb, which is treated to prevent infection. The danger from drug resistant strains is that they can remain present at the point of amputation well beyond surgery. As a result, follow-up procedures must be performed in the future to address the new infection, often resulting in additional amputation and further time in a hospital recovering. The physical toll from this process is obvious, but what is less obvious is the mental toll. As CPT Kirkup explained, after these types of surgeries soldiers have to go through the mental process of accepting a new definition of who they are and their limitations. For an organization that attempts to instill a sense of invincibility in its warriors, this sudden and violent change can have extraordinary affects on a soldiers mental well-being. When drug resistant infections cause multiple surgery/recovery procedures this mental damage is compounded in ways that are difficult to imagine.

To help combat this cycle, CPT Kirkup's team has very recently started a program to collect data from the entire Army hospital network. They have setup sensors and procedures in these facilities to collect and parse infectious disease data at a very granular level. Moving beyond traditional data, such as cultures and blood samples, the project hopes to add spatio-temporal data, e.g., two soldiers were wounded in the same attack at time t in location z, then road the same ambulance to some hospital, and were then separated into different recovery rooms. It is through these new bits of data that CPT Kirkup and his team hope to understand the dynamics of disease diffusion within a military population, and also how they might be able to identify "early warning" signs as to when these infections might occur and how to prevent them.

It quickly became clear that there was a graphical component to this problem. The data are a natural graph in high-dimensional space, and perhaps to provide the military with the insight it hopes to gain from this project this approach will be useful.

I am very excited about having the opportunity to work with CPT Kirkup and his team on this project, and I will provide periodic updates as to discovery, failures and general progress related to my participation.

Photo: BBC News