Blog Post

Partnerships in Applied Research

August 2, 2012

For the second year in a row, Rho participated in the Industrial Math/Stat Modeling Workshop (IMSM) hosted by the National Science Foundation-supported Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute (SAMSI). The workshop, a joint program of Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University, is designed to foster collaboration between industrial or government research groups and graduate students in mathematics, engineering, and statistics.

Each year, SAMSI invites 5-6 research organizations and approximately 36 of the top statistics, mathematics, and engineering graduate students from universities across the country to participate in this intensive 10-day program. Faculty members from the various research organizations present the students with challenging real-world problems with the goal of working together to develop innovative solutions.

Rho was one of six organizations, along with MIT Lincoln Labs, Sandia National Laboratories, SAS Institute, Inc., the US Army Core of Engineers, and Lord Corp. to participate as faculty for the 2012 IMSM workshop.

Rho was represented at the workshop by Dr. Herman Mitchell, Vice President of Federal Operations at Rho, senior biostatistician Jeremy Wildfire, and statistical scientist Agustin Calatroni, who partnered with Dr. Emily Lei Kang from the University of Cincinnati to work on a project to develop a digital measurement method for assessing allergic reactivity via skin prick testing.

Rho’s project was born out of Dr. Mitchell’s over 20 years of experience conducting clinical trials for the NIH-funded inner city asthma studies. A common research procedure in many trials for asthma and allergies is allergic sensitivity testing, which is most often conducted via skin prick test. In skin prick testing, allergen extracts are applied to a patient’s skin and then a special device is used to “prick” the skin at the site of each extract. After a brief waiting period, patients who are sensitive to an allergen will develop a raised bump where they were pricked, known as a wheal. A positive reaction to a given allergen is determined by measuring the size of the wheal and comparing it to the wheal size of a positive control.

The current practice for calculating wheal sizes is to outline the wheals with pen, transfer wheal outlines to paper, and measure various parameters of the wheal by hand using a special ruler. Unfortunately, wheal measurements are prone to user error and inaccuracy. Wheals are asymmetrical and variably shaped, and measurements must be precise to the nearest millimeter – characteristics which make it challenging to get a reliable measurements and a precise calculation of size.

Rho’s objective for the project was to develop a more reliable and consistent measurement method by using digital imaging technology. Digital imaging of wheal size and area offers promise over current methods because it would eliminate the variability inherent in human measurement and provide a more precise and accurate measurement of size.

By the conclusion of this year’s IMSM, Rho’s team was able to create a proof-of-concept image processing algorithm to calculate the area of wheal outlines. More research, refinement, and validation are needed, but the hope is to build on these initial steps and ultimately improve the way allergen sensitivity tests are conducted in clinical trials as well as routine healthcare settings.

Rho would like to thank SAMSI for inviting us back to participate in the IMSM again this year and the opportunity to work with a tremendous team of talented students and faculty.