College of Science - City University of Hong KongUsing wearable device data to support life-changing therapies

Using wearable device data to support life-changing therapies

At CityU’s Department of Biostatistics, research is being pioneered that could help thousands of children with a debilitating medical condition

Biostatistics is a highly specialised field that some universities are yet to fully embrace. But this hasn’t been the case at the City University of Hong Kong (CityU), where a department was established in 2021. The first of its kind in Hong Kong, the Department of Biostatistics is committed to advancing health data science under the leadership of Ian W. McKeague, the department’s head and chair professor.

“I have personally been involved with biostatistics since around 2004 at Columbia University,” McKeague says. “My training and PhD were in statistics but my research work was specifically biostatistical and that was my motivation to pursue the topics that have been the focus of my research throughout my career.”

Currently, that focus is on wearable device data and how it can be applied to healthcare. “This is a relatively new area, which is both fascinating and challenging,” McKeague says. “I didn’t necessarily enjoy working directly in the big data field, but a wearable device generates big data. It involves the longitudinal collection of huge quantities of data and it poses many interesting challenges to a statistician.” 

McKeague and his team are working hard to address these challenges. McKeague collaborates with researchers at Columbia University who are carrying out research on a particular genetic disease – mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome. “It is a hugely debilitating condition, especially in children,” McKeague says. “The team of neurologists I work with at Columbia has developed a therapy for this disease – subjects come into the lab once every six months to receive treatment. In the first week after treatment, they are monitored by wearable devices and the relevant data are analysed to assess the efficacy of the treatment.”

This project is a major undertaking, receiving funding from various national health institutes. It could help thousands of children suffering from the condition.

The Department of Biostatistics at CityU is a young department, with McKeague involved in its establishment, recruiting faculty and developing its programmes. This created challenges because, although statistics is a well-established field in Hong Kong, there was nothing specifically dealing with biostatistics locally yet. “I wanted to establish the Department of Biostatistics within the College of Science to create a thriving research atmosphere,” McKeague says. “At Columbia, I mainly worked with epidemiologists, but this is a slightly different culture.”

A number of key research projects are being undertaken by other faculty members at CityU’s Department of Biostatistics, including one young faculty who is studying biobank data. “We also have more traditional statisticians like Ngai Hang Chan, who has had a long career in time series analysis,” McKeague says. “He’s now working on the detection of glaucoma using methods he's developed from his work on time series analysis.” 

As with any university research, the Department of Biostatistics relies heavily on successful collaborations. “Collaboration is crucial,”McKeague says. “The biomedical motivation has to be there. Successful collaborations are not always easy to find, but sometimes you get lucky and they just happen out of the blue.”

In biostatistics, working with other scientists can be a hugely stimulating experience. “Finding the right collaboration can take time,” McKeague admits. “But as the department develops, more partnerships are sure to emerge, especially as Hong Kong has a wide range of medical organisations that could form mutually beneficial collaborations with us here at the Department of Biostatistics.”

Find out more about the Department of Biostatistics at CityU.

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