Using big data to create a 'cancer internet' could save lives

Analyzing the mountains of medical data churned out constantly across the planet is being touted as the bridge between the current state of patient care and fully realized personalized, customized treatments for disease and illness. It's no different for cancer, according to a paper in Nature Medicine.


"Cancer is an incredibly complex disease, and it is constantly changing," Mark Lawler, PhD, a Belfast, Ireland-based professor with the Queen's University's Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology and co-author of the paper, said in a statement. "Each person's cancer is different. 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."

Dr. Lawler's research is aimed at investigating the ways to break down those information silos and create a kind of "cancer genomic internet," which would give clinicians worldwide access to clinical trial information, treatment data and a number of other resources that could mean the difference between life and death when treating complex or rare cancers.

However, there are ethical, technical and logistical challenges to the creation of such a resource, according to Dr. Lawler and his co-authors, whose paper explores solutions to those barriers. Creating those solutions is also the aim of the Cancer Task Team of the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health, established in 2013 to build a common framework to share clinical cancer and genomic data securely.

"We hope this blueprint will be adopted by researchers around the world and enable a unified global approach to unlocking the value of data for enhanced patient care," Dr. Lawler said.

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