Big Data can be the difference between life and death for cancer patients

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Queen's University Belfast

Original news release was issued by Queen’s University Belfast.

At this point, we are used to talking about Big Data as that controversial, but astonishingly useful thing. We dream about IoT-powered smart cities with perfectly optimized traffic, and data-driven medical clinics that gauge the danger of large-scale epidemics well in advance. We also fear companies that are too good at targeting their ads.

However, there is a very specific problem that we are still unable to tackle effectively, but one that could benefit greatly from big data, and that is reliable treatment of cancer.

Leading cancer expert from Queen’s University Belfast, Professor Mark Lawler is the corresponding author of a paper that proposes revolutionising cancer prevention and care by the sharing of genetic information from millions of patients around the world. As Lawler stated, cancer is very complex, it changes constantly, and it is almost never the same for any individual patient. Meanwhile, as Business Insider accurately points out, clinical trials are performed on very small, non-representative samples of patients. There simply isn’t enough data available to design effective personalized treatment procedures. But collection of comprehensive data about cancer patients is not the problem. The problem is notorious for everything big data: sharing.

Professor Lillian Siu from Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and the University of Toronto, who is joint lead author on this study said: “With the development of new technologies that have enabled the rapid and affordable profiling of cancer tumours, there has been an explosion of clinical and genomic data.”

Siu continues: “Hospitals, laboratories and research facilities around the world hold huge amounts of this data from cancer patients. But this information is currently held in isolated ‘silos’ that don’t talk to each other. It is this lack of information sharing that threatens the advancement of tailored patient care.”

According to Professor Lawler: “The key to staying ahead in the fight against cancer is to properly understand how the disease evolves. We need to look at the big picture and identify patterns between groups of patients, whose information currently resides in different databases and institutions. To do this, we must break down the ‘data silos’ that Professor Siu refers to and ensure that genetic and clinical information is shared.”

“The aim is to create a type of ‘cancer genomic internet’. Imagine if we could create a searchable cancer database that allowed doctors to match patients from different parts of the world with suitable clinical trials. This genetic matchmaking approach would allow us to develop personalised treatments for each individual’s cancer, precisely targeting rogue cells and improving outcomes for patients.”

As any big data enthusiast will gladly grumble about, the silo-like nature of data collection is hindering the progress in almost all walks of life, where large-scale management is even attempted. Very often, more than a few stakeholders are involved, be it private companies or governmental organisations, each with their own agenda and motivations.

But, you know, it is cancer that we are talking about. Would a little cooperation be too much to ask?

Michal Dudic

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