In Gil Alterovitz’s ideal world, every operating room is a concert hall, every cancerous tumor a song. Work by Alterovitz, a researcher at the Harvard–MIT Health Sciences and Technology Division and the Children’s Hospital Informatics Program, now may make that vision a reality. He and his colleagues have created technology that translates the body’s gene expression into music.
The concept first came to Alterovitz in 1998, when his research on how physicians respond to the sensory overload produced by the noise from monitors and other machines in clinics revealed that many physicians had learned to ignore critical alarms—or worse, chose to turn them off.
What would happen, Alterovitz wondered, if all those beeps, buzzes, and bells were replaced with the sounds of violins, violas, and other instruments? In many operating rooms, surgical teams play recordings of everything from classical concertos to classic rock as a way to relax and focus. With this in mind, Alterovitz and colleagues developed a computer program, to be used in laboratories, that translates gene expression—the process by which a gene’s DNA sequence is converted to a protein or other product—into music. First, they shrank data from thousands of genes down to four combinations that they believe represent nearly all the data’s variability. Next, the researchers assigned each combination a musical note that, when added to other notes, formed chords and then music. Healthy gene networks result in harmonious music—and a pleasing background noise for physicians. But when the genes’ behavior reflects disease or changes in bodily functions, the soothing tunes strike a disquieting chord. That jarring change is enough, Alterovitz hopes, to alert doctors to potential problems.
“Colon cancer,” he points out, “sounds kind of eerie.”