UNT professor fighting children's cancer using math

Xuexia (Helen) Wang, associate professor of biostatistics, is developing mathematical methods to figure out the best treatments for pediatric cancer patients.
Monday, February 20, 2017 - 09:53

DENTON (UNT), Texas – When you think of cancer fighters, you most likely don’t think of mathematicians, but Xuexia “Helen” Wang is both. She is a biostatistics professor in the Department of Mathematics at the University of North Texas and she is using her statistics skills to help the smallest of cancer patients.

Wang’s goal is to figure out the best treatment for individual pediatric patients to not only help them fight cancer but prevent more health problems later in life. Wang started her work because it troubled her that some children who were treated with chemotherapy later develop the heart problem cardiomyopathy, which can be deadly. Other patients who were given radiation as treatment are at risk for having secondary tumors form as they age.

“I feel very terrible for those patients, those children,” said Wang. “That is my reason for doing this. We must find the best ways to treat them to avoid future problems.”

Wang formed close relationships with several hospitals, as well as the Children’s Oncology Group, to be able to research the health records of thousands of pediatric cancer patients. She then developed statistical measures to see the differences in children who went on to develop health problems and those who did not. She studied those differences to find patterns that could reveal a gene behind the problem.

“After we identify that gene, it could lead to new medication, or we can pre-screen pediatric cancer patients to find out their risk,” said Wang. “If they are at risk of the chemotherapy, their doctor may use a different therapy or even just a different chemo drug. If patients don’t have the gene, we can keep using the most effective chemotherapy currently on the market. Our findings can directly affect the treatment of child cancer patients.”

Wang is now busy working on a mathematical prediction model that she believes will soon help make that tailored treatment an easier and more commonly used method.

          “This research will save lives,” said Wang.

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