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Future doctors could monitor health through music of the patients' genes

In this representation of genetic activity, the circles are genes, the lines signify relationships, and colors indicate genes that have similar functions.
In this representation of genetic activity, the circles are genes, the lines signify relationships, and colors indicate genes that have similar functions.

There's musical gene expression (see: Hank Williams the first, second, and third) and musical Gene expression (see: Gene Simmons with his tongue out). And then there's the Musical Gene Expression project at Harvard Medical School, which envisions a future where doctors will be able to tune in to the internal music of their patients.

The project anticipates a day when physicians and researchers will have access to real-time monitoring of gene expression, the process by which a gene's DNA sequence is converted into the functional proteins of the cell. The problem is that when that technology arrives, the amount of data that will come with it will be immense.

"There are going to be thousands of things to monitor, and we can't expect a physician to be able to process all that information," said Gil Alterovitz, the lead researcher on the project. "So we're using music to reduce the number of variables from thousands down to just a few."

They use mathematical techniques, in the case of colon cancer, for instance, to reduce the data from a group of nearly 10,000 genes down to just four combinations that they say represent virtually all the variability in the data.

Each combination is then assigned a note. When three or more notes are played at the same time, they become a chord. When those chords are played across time, they become music.

The researchers assign a harmonious sound to a normal, healthy gene network. When there are deviations in the genes' behavior -- such as the presence of disease -- the music sounds inharmonious.

"Auditory information allows surgeons, anesthesiologists, and other physicians to be able to focus on their task and listen at the same time," Alterovitz said. "Harmonious music has a background quality to it; inharmonious music captures your attention."

Atul Butte, an assistant professor in medical informatics and pediatrics at Stanford University, said he thinks Alterovitz is on to something.

"It's so hard for a human to perceive all the differences in these numbers," said Butte, who was not involved in the research. "Then Gil comes along and says, 'Let's think of these things with a musical touch.' I was at a presentation he gave recently, and when he started playing the music, it was obvious to everyone in the audience that this approach was just amazing."

The project is in many ways a continuation of work Alterovitz, 31, started in 1998, when he began researching the sensory overload physicians experience in a clinical setting. A patient is often hooked up to as many as 20 different monitoring devices at the same time, with each one of them streaming heaps of data on everything from blood pressure to the electric rhythms of the heart. "In an effort to concentrate, I found that physicians learned to ignore the alarms on the monitors, or even turn them off," Alterovitz says, "which was frightening to me."

His system, he says, gives the user the ability to discern many pieces of information at once, and may have broader potential for other areas where a human is asked to process massive amounts of data, such as an air traffic controller.

Alterovitz also hopes that the accessibility of music will open up new educational avenues by taking some of the mystery out of gene study. "One of the issues in science is that researchers need to explain their work to the public in a tangible way they can relate to," he says. "When scientists first recorded the beat of the human heart, there was this wonderful rhythm to it, and it was a new day in medicine. This is another instance where science can turn into art."

"It's not going to sound like Mozart," Alterovitz says, "but it will give you a sense of our internal beat."

To hear the music, go to bcl.med.harvard.edu/proteomics/proj/csf/biological_guilds_slides.php and click on the musical notations.

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