The University of Southampton

Postgraduate researcher awarded STEM for Britain prize for applying astronomical modelling to medicine

Published: 15 March 2019
Illustration
Lorenzo Zanisi (r) celebrates his STEM for Britain prize with fellow physics winners Amalia Thomas (l) and Katie Ley. Copyright: STEM for Britain

University of Southampton astronomer Lorenzo Zanisi has won a STEM for Britain Silver Award for a novel use of data science that exploited similarities between astrophysics and medicine.

The postgraduate researcher used a modelling technique for simulating how galaxies assemble to instead highlight potential shortcomings in the current methodology for treating high blood pressure.

He presented his project at the prestigious House of Commons exhibition on Wednesday and was recognised with one of three physics prizes for the foremost examples of ground-breaking early career research in the UK.

"Galaxies are all very different from each other because of different formation mechanisms and the same principle applies to human beings with our different genes," Lorenzo explains. "During my PhD studies I have shown that the dark matter haloes in which galaxies live may be responsible for the breadth of properties that we observe. This was made possible by Monte Carlo simulations and I have used this technique to show that the current methodology for treating high blood pressure leaves many people at risk of developing severe complications.

"This research is the first of its kind, and more work is certainly needed, but I believe it shows that substantial GP time is being spent in a non-optimally efficient treatment strategy; it therefore poses the question of whether this can be improved with better techniques."

Lorenzo pursued his research through an internship at St Thomas' Hospital in London which was sponsored by the South East Physics Network's Data Intensive Science Centre (DISCnet) and supported by a collaborative framework including the British Heart Foundation and the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation in Portsmouth.

"The study shows that there may be better strategies, including adopting more precise devices to measure blood pressure, that could significantly reduce the proportion of patients at risk," Lorenzo says. "This could have implications in savings of time and cost as well as public health.

"Thorough health economics considerations are yet to be done, but this is something my research team and I would like to pursue in the near future. These considerations will be even more relevant when the next guidelines for diagnosis of high blood pressure come out this August. According to these guidelines, thousands more patients will be put on treatment, which will indeed increase the pressure on GPs. Having a more efficient treatment strategy and more accurate devices will thus be essential in the future."

STEM for Britain promotes early-stage and early-career research scientists, engineers, technologists and mathematicians through a high profile exhibition during British Science Week. The competition attracts hundreds of entrants, of whom around a third are selected to present their work in Parliament.

"This is the most valuable recognition so far of the passion I put into my research,"€ Lorenzo says. "Being selected to participate in such prestigious event was already an honour, winning a prize was something absolutely special. I must thank my PhD supervisor Dr Francesco Shankar, cardiologist Professor Phil Chowienczyk and former Southampton astronomer Dr Chris Frohmaier who supported me in this project. These findings show that there are potentially many unexplored opportunities for breakthroughs that may only be possible when scientists from very different fields work together."

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