Marianthi Markatou, PhD; Andrew H. Talal, MD

Marianthi Markatou, PhD, left, and Andrew H. Talal, MD, are leading an effort to use big data to analyze patterns of liver disease.

Researchers to Use Big Data to Enhance Liver Care in WNY

Published September 19, 2018

UB researchers have received funding to apply the power of big data to enhance liver health in the Western New York region.

“... The opportunity to expand screening programs and to engage in community education is extremely important to reduce the morbidity and mortality associated with liver disease in the Western New York population.”
Professor of medicine in the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition

The award comes at a time when liver disease is spiking nationally. A study reported in July in the British Medical Journal found that from 1999 to 2016, deaths in the U.S. from cirrhosis of the liver have risen 65 percent while liver cancer deaths have doubled.

Cirrhosis, which is end-stage scarring of the liver, can result from hepatitis C, alcoholism or fatty liver disease.

Analyzing Patterns of Liver Disease

Clearly, it’s not an exaggeration to say that we are seeing a national crisis of liver disease and liver cancer,” says Andrew H. Talal, MD, professor of medicine in the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, and co-principal investigator on the new grant.

Talal is director of the Liver Center of Western New York and is a physician with UBMD Internal Medicine. He is co-principal investigator with Marianthi Markatou, PhD, professor and associate chair of research and healthcare informatics in the Department of Biostatistics in UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions (SPHHP).

They will utilize the techniques of big data to analyze patterns of liver disease, such as liver cancer and other liver diseases that can lead to liver cancer, among specific populations in order to develop better ways to screen and identify patients with chronic liver disease.

Studying Specific Demographic Groups

Markatou is funded to develop new methods that are able to extract credible information from big data and to identify patients with liver disease and liver cancer. The new methods enable the development of population health algorithms.

Markatou, who also serves as co-principal investigator of the Liver Center of Western New York, will use the funding to cover the construction of needed methodology for inference and knowledge discovery in big data with applications to electronic health records and liver disease.

“The methods are based on strong statistical foundations, can handle enormous amounts of data and are computationally fast,” she says. “But, more importantly, they refocus the question of data usage from the massiveness of the data to the question of interest and the associated data analytic task, and leverage, when appropriate, the data size for information extraction.”

The five-year, $3 million grant is from the Troup Fund of the Kaleida Health Foundation.

George E. Matthews, MD, assistant professor of medicine in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and chief of service for internal medicine at Kaleida Health, said that the new project is a prime example of translational research that takes place in academic health centers, where clinician-scientists take laboratory innovations and translate them into advances in patient care.

“The question that now must be tackled is, ‘how do liver diseases impact, not just an individual, but segments of our population?’” says Matthews, who also is a physician with UBMD Internal Medicine. “Dr. Talal and his colleagues will look at specific demographic groups in the community and find out how to identify who is at risk and then treat them appropriately. Big data will help us do that.”

Jacobs School, Kaleida Health Collaboration

“We are very grateful to Kaleida Health for providing this funding at such a critical time,” Talal says. “This award enables us to continue to grow and expand our program in liver diseases that was established in 2015 with an initial award from the Troup Fund.”

That award allowed Talal to create a liver biorepository at UB’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute. It serves as a central resource in the region, with human samples of liver diseases from approximately 300 patients that include important clinical and demographic data about the individuals from whom they were taken.

“The new award allows us to develop algorithms based on data generated by patients who have liver disease,” Talal explains. “As UB researchers, we are using Kaleida Health data to help us more efficiently assess and predict who may have undiagnosed fatty liver disease, for example. It’s an excellent collaboration between Kaleida Health, the Jacobs School and SPHHP.”

Earlier Detection, Treatment of Disease Sought

The goal is to better understand the factors that might put a patient at higher risk for liver disease, including liver cancer, and to use them to diagnose and treat patients earlier.

“For example, say a patient comes to the hospital or the emergency department with diabetes and elevated liver enzyme levels,” Talal says. “We want to be able to predict how likely that patient is to have undiagnosed fatty liver disease. That’s what this funding will help us do.”

Over the past five years, Talal has been principal investigator at UB on more than a dozen clinical trials for new treatments for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and other chronic liver conditions. While there is no cure, liver disease and cancer are treatable and preventable, Talal says.

Focusing on Wide Array of Liver Diseases

Markatou aims to develop methods that will effectively and efficiently integrate data that are heterogeneous in scale, type and information content.

The researchers will then use these methods to screen for fatty liver disease/liver cancer and to develop improved diagnostic tools.

“Early identification of fatty liver disease may prevent progression to end-stage liver disease and liver cancer,” Markatou says.

The primary diseases Talal and Markatou will focus on are nonalcoholic steatosis hepatitis, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, hepatitis viruses and hepatocellular carcinoma, as well as other liver diseases. 

“Given the prevalence of liver disease in the Western New York region, the opportunity to expand screening programs and to engage in community education is extremely important to reduce the morbidity and mortality associated with liver disease in the Western New York population,” Talal notes.

The Troup Fund of the Kaleida Health Foundation was established in 1974 for the purpose of advancing cancer care, research and equipment acquisition. It is anticipated that earlier detection and treatment of liver diseases under this award will, in turn, help to prevent liver cancer and advance liver cancer care and outcomes.