Finding Treatments for Fatty Liver Using Data Science and Artificial Intelligence

Carolin Victoria Schneider Copyright: © Nordrhein-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Künste | Bettina Engel-Albustin

RWTH Junior Professor Carolin Victoria Schneider has been named Young Scientist of the Year.


Her research focuses on the liver as the body's control center: RWTH Professor Carolin Victoria Schneider has been named Young Scientist of the Year 2023 by academics, the career portal for science, research, public affairs, and society of the ZEIT publishing group. She received this award for her research into mechanisms in the human body that contribute to metabolic diseases. Schneider is Junior Professor of Prevention and Genetics of Metabolic Diseases of the Liver, Department of Gastroenterology, Metabolic Diseases and Internal Intensive Care Medicine (Medical Clinic III). As a scientist and trained doctor, the 28-year-old is dedicated to developing effective prevention and treatment strategies for metabolic diseases. In addition to her work as a doctor and scientist, Schneider is committed to promoting women in science, particularly in the STEM subjects, for example by acting as a mentor for young female scientists.

Schneider and her husband came to RWTH Aachen University from the University of Pennsylvania through the NRW returnee program, with which the state aims to encourage outstanding scientists to return home. She was in Pennsylvania on the Walter Benjamin Program of the German Research Foundation, having previously completed her doctorate under Professor Strnad at the Medical Clinic III. Her doctorate dealt with mutations of a gene that can cause liver and lung diseases. She then successfully focused on using genetic mutations to develop therapies for fatty liver for her application to the returnee program. Like her husband, she moved to Professor Christian Trautwein's institute and she was accepted into the Young Academy of the North Rhine-Westphalian Academy of Science and the Arts last year. A rare honor.

In order to identify important risk factors and biomarkers, she integrates data science approaches and artificial intelligence into her methodology. This means that Schneider and her research group in Aachen work with large data sets. Tables, tables, and more tables. Her working group is made up of both bioinformaticians and physicians. "I see myself as a link between computer science and medicine," she says. In the USA, she worked with 60,000 data sets from the Penn Medicine Bank. In Europe, she’s working with far more from the UK Biobank. When the electronic patient record is introduced, she will be able to generate data that better reflects the population in Germany. With the help of AI, however, 45,000 MRIs of the abdominal cavity will already have been visualized by then, making the fatty deposits on the liver clearly visible.

But why is it worth using artificial intelligence to sift through tables that have 42,000 columns and 500,000 rows? "Many metabolic diseases could be significantly improved through targeted prevention," explains Schneider. Targeted means more specifically than simply eating less or differently and exercising more. "We want to decipher the mechanisms behind a fatty liver."

Genetic variants that cause fatty liver can also be identified. After all, fast food and a lack of exercise are not always responsible for the formation of a fatty liver. Once the mechanisms have been recognized and genetic variants identified, new drugs can be developed on the basis of this knowledge. What’s more, existing drugs that are used for other diseases can be repurposed to treat fatty liver. This is because drugs specifically for fatty liver are not yet available in pharmacies, but we do have some initial experience using diabetes medications that promote weight loss.

Schneider's research group also deliberately analyzes men and women separately, because there needs to be greater differentiation in medicine in this area as well. Aspirin, for example, has different effects on the liver of men and women. This is also part of the desired individualization of therapy. The same principle applies here: The more data sets are available, the better it is for research and ultimately for the treatment of patients.

Because one thing is clear: Fatty liver is common, but it is not always a mild disease. The problem is that patients only notice a fatty liver when inflammation and scarring have occurred due to changes in metabolic processes. Prior to this occurring, only ultrasound or liver tests taken in other contexts can indicate a fatty liver - and 25 to 30 percent of the population have this condition. The inflammation is usually accompanied by steatohepatitis, then possibly cirrhosis of the liver. At that point, only a liver transplant can help the patient. "However, a fatty liver can still be reversed," emphasizes Schneider. This makes prevention all the more important.

The academics Young Scientist of the Year Award comes with a payment of 5,000 euros and it honors young scientists who have made a lasting contribution to the respective scientific field with pioneering research achievements. The recipient must also have distinguished themselves through their exemplary actions and voluntary commitment to science. This is the seventeenth time in a row that the award has been presented. In addition to Professor Schneider, three other people will receive awards: Second place went to PD Dr. med. Georgios Kaissis, Technical University of Munich. Third place was shared by Dr. Michelle Browne (Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin) and Dr. Deniz Sarikaya (Vrije Universiteit Brussel). The academics Young Scientist of the Year Award will be presented on March 25, 2024 in Berlin as part of the "Gala of German Science" of the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers.