SMB conference in Utah

I have just attended the annual meeting of the Society for Mathematical Biology in Salt Lake City. Before reporting on my experiences there I will start with an apparently unrelated subject. I studied and did my PhD at the University of Aberdeen and I am very satisfied with the quality of the mathematical education I received there. There was one direction in mathematics in which I did not get as much training as I later needed, namely analysis and partial differential equations. This was not the fault of the lecturers, who had enough expertise and enthusiasm for teaching these things. It was the fault of the students. Since it was a small department the students chose which advanced courses were to be offered from a list of suggestions. Most of the students (all of them except me?) did not like analysis and so most of the advanced courses with a significant analysis content were not chosen. By the time I got my first postdoc position I had become convinced that in the area I was working in the research based on differential geometry was a region which was overgrazed and the thing to do was to apply PDE. Fortunately the members of the group of Jürgen Ehlers which I joined were of the same opinion. The first paper I wrote after I got there was on a parabolic PDE, the Robinson-Trautman equation. I had to educate myself for this from books and one of the sources which was most helpful was a book by Avner Friedman. Here is the connection to the conference. Avner Friedman, now 84 but very lively, gave a talk. Mathematically the subject was free boundary value problems for reaction-diffusion-advection equations, Friedman’s classic area. More importantly, these PDE problems came from the modelling of combination therapies for cancer. The type of therapies being discussed included antibodies to CTLA-4 and PD-1 and Raf inhibitors, subjects I have discussed at various places in this blog. I was impressed by how much at home Friedman seemed to be with these biological and medical themes. This is maybe not so surprising in view of the fact that he did found the Institute for Mathematical Biosciences in Ohio and was its director from 2002 to 2008. More generally I was positively impressed by the extent to which the talks I heard at this conference showed a real engagement with themes in biology and medicine and evidence of a lot of cooperations with biologists and clinicians. There were also quite a number of people there employed at hospitals and with medical training. As an example I mention Gary An from the University of Chicago who is trained as a surgeon and whose thoughtful comments about the relations between mathematics, biology and medicine I found very enlightening. There was a considerable thematic overlap with the conference on cancer immunotherapy I went to recently.

Now Subgroups are being set up within the Society to concentrate on particular subjects. One of these, the Immunobiology and Infection Subgroup had its inaugural meeting this week and of course I went. There I and a number of other people learned a basic immunological fact which we found very surprising. It is well known that the thymus decreases in size with age so that presumably our capacity to produce new T cells is constantly decreasing. The obvious assumption, which I had made, is that this is a fairly passive process related to the fact that many systems in our bodies run down with age. We learned from Johnna Barnaby that the situation may be very different. It may be that the decrease in the size of the thymus is due to active repression by sexual hormones. She is involved in work on therapy for prostate cancer and said that it has been found that in men with prostate cancer who are getting drugs to reduce their testosterone levels it is seen that their thymus increases in size.

There were some recurrent themes at the conference. One was oncolytic viruses. These are genetically engineered viruses intended to destroy cancer cells. In modelling these it is common to use extensions of the fundamental model of virus dynamics which is very familiar to me. For instance Dominik Wodarz talked about some ODE models for oncolytic viruses in vitro where the inclusion of interferon production in the model leads to bistability. (In reponse to a question from me he said that it is a theorem that without the interferon bistability is impossible.) I was pleased to see how, more generally, a lot of people were using small ODE models making real contact to applications. Another recurrent theme was that there are two broad classes of macrophages which may be favourable or unfavourable to tumour growth. I should find out more about that. Naveen Vaidya talked about the idea that macrophages in the brain may be a refuge for HIV. Actually, even after talking to him I am not sure if it should not rather be microglia than macrophages. James Moore talked about the question of how T cells are eliminated in the thymus or become Tregs. His talk was more mathematical than biological but it has underlined once again that I want to understand more about positive and negative selection in the thymus and the related production of Tregs.

On a quite different subject there were two plenary talks related to coral reefs. A theme which is common in the media is that of the damage to coral due to climate change. Of course this is dominated by politics and usually not accompanied by any scientific information on what is going on. The talk of Marissa Blaskett was an excellent antidote to this kind of thing and now I have really understood something about the subject. The other talk, by Mimi Koehl, was less about the reefs themselves but about the way in which the larvae of snails which graze on the coral colonize the reef. I found the presentation very impressive because it started with a subject which seemed impossibly complicated and showed how scientific investigation, in particular mathematical modelling, can lead to understanding. The subject was the interaction of microscopic swimming organisms with the highly turbulent flow of sea water around the reefs. Investigating this involved among other things the following. Measuring the turbulent flow around the reef using Doppler velocimetry. Reconstructing this flow in a wave tunnel containing an artificial reef in order to study the small-scale structure of the transport of chemical substances by the flow. Going out and checking the results by following dye put into the actual reef. And many other things. Last but not least there was the mathematical modelling. The speaker is a biologist and she framed her talk by slides showing how many (most?) biologists hate mathematical modelling and how she loves it.

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