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‘Big Data’ is a big deal toward a breast cancer cure

More than 30 years ago I made a promise to my sister Susan G. Komen that I would find a cure for breast cancer, which claimed her life at age 36. Since then her namesake foundation has become the world’s largest breast cancer organization with the biggest non-profit funds dedicated to breast cancer research.

In keeping with that promise, I am pleased to report that this month Susan G. Komen under the leadership of Judy Salerno, MD MS, president and CEO in collaboration with the Robertson Foundation convened the first Big Data for Breast Cancer symposium at Rockefeller University in New York.

{mosads}Leaders from the diverse fields of technology, cancer research and treatment, and patient advocacy met for two days to share their respective perspectives in discussions related to the next big leap in finding cures for cancer through the use of Big Data. 

Dr. George Sledge Jr., chief of medical oncology at Stanford University Medical Center, and the chief scientific advisor of Komen’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), noted that the goal of the conference is to increase interactions among various experts to generate new directions in research and treatment that would assist Komen in navigating Big Data, and lead with next steps. Dr. Sledge summed up the value and challenge of Big Data as follows: “There has been a data explosion in recent years, with data coming from studies of the human genome, from nation-wide adoption of electronic health records, and from the “Internet of Things,” the billions of objects connected to the Internet and now generating large amounts of data. It has been estimated that more data is produced every two days than was produced by all of human history prior to 2003. This offers us both challenges and opportunities.”

This is what Dr. Eric Winer the director of the Breast Cancer Program at Dana -Farber Cancer Institute said with regard to Big Data: “We want to go beyond our usual role of identifying the best science.” By convening this conference and bringing top experts together, we are hoping to influence how Big Data can be used to answer questions and, ultimately, improve health outcomes.

Now is the time to collect data from a whole host of relevant sources to understand the causes and effects of disease so cures can be found. We envision the ability to collect genomic, clinical, epidemiological and molecular data from electronic medical records, patient monitoring, clinical trials, and even mobile apps to see how they relate to one other, thus giving researches a window they never had before to look through.

With the use of Big Data, Komen hopes to create an international community capable of merging genomics and electronic health records and using these data to improve breast cancer research and clinical care.  Having built a global community around breast cancer as the largest non-governmental funder of breast cancer research ($889M), it is only natural that once again Komen leads the way in understanding and implementing the use of Big Data for better patient outcomes.

Now is the time for doctors to work more closely with technology leaders. The collaboration of research and technology could turn out to be one of the most powerful and useful tools for prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and cure of breast cancer and many other cancers and diseases.

By creating vast databases powered by the most advanced computers, researchers will be able to evaluate mind-boggling amounts of data and will be able to identify patterns and correlations that would not be possible with human research alone. It is important that a patient’s data not be treated in isolation, but compared and contrasted with others, allowing sophisticated computer modeling that can be analyzed and understood by researchers.

While data is voluminous it is not readily available due to current HIPAA laws. Too often the data is either siloed or unavailable.

While it is important to protect the identity and confidentially of patients, it is also in the best interests of patients that their relevant data be available not only for their own care and cure but for the health, safety, and welfare of others.

The greatest leap in innovation and invention in the last 30 years has been made through computing, which can now be applied more broadly to use Big Data to provide new insights into finding cures for the most deadly of diseases.

Now is the time to create the necessary public/private partnerships to ensure that government facilitates the appropriate use and availability of data for researchers.

Information sharing is the key to cures. We now have the technology, and we have the researchers. What we also need now is the availability of information.

The promise I made to my sister to find a cure for breast cancer may still be kept because of the groundbreaking work Susan G. Komen is doing with Big Data, and nothing could make me happier.

America has always been the place of the “Big Think” and Big Data is in keeping with that spirit.

Brinker is the founder of Susan G. Komen, the world’s largest breast cancer organization.


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