Big data saves lives, say cancer experts

5 May 2016

A recent paper from the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health (GA4GH) highlights the potential of “big data” to unlock the secrets inside cancer cells and enable the development of more effective personalised treatments.

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND — A recent paper from the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health (GA4GH) highlights the potential of “big data” to unlock the secrets inside cancer cells and enable the development of more effective personalised treatments. Published in the journal Nature Medicine, the paper notes that sharing genetic information from millions of cancer patients around the world could be key to revolutionising cancer prevention and care.

Established in 2013 to create a common framework for the responsible, voluntary and secure sharing of patients’ clinical and genomic data, GA4GH is a partnership between scientists, clinicians, patients and the IT and Life Sciences industries involving over 400 organisations in over 40 countries. The Cancer Task Team of its Clinical Working Group has published the paper as a blueprint to enable the sharing of patient data to improve patient outcomes.

“The term ‘big data’ refers to huge amounts of information that can be analysed by high ­performance computers to reveal patterns, trends and associations. In medical terms, this includes clinical and genomic data that is derived from patients during, for example, diagnostic testing and treatment,” said co-­senior author Mark Lawler, a professor at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Co­-Chair of the Cancer Task Team. “Cancer is an incredibly complex disease, and it is constantly changing. Each person’s cancer is different. The key to staying ahead in the fight against cancer is to properly understand how the disease evolves.”

Co-­senior author Lillian Siu of Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and the University of Toronto in Canada, 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. 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.”

In order to identify patterns between groups of patients, whose information currently resides in different databases and institutions, genetic and clinical information must be shared across existing silos. The Cancer Task Team, which also includes experts from Australia, Belgium, France, Korea, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the US, aims to create a type of ‘cancer genomic internet’ — a searchable cancer database that allows doctors to match patients from different parts of the world with suitable clinical trials.

This genetic matchmaking approach would for the development of personalised treatments for each individual’s cancer, precisely targeting rogue cells and improving outcomes for patients. But clinical and genomic data sharing presents logistical, technical, and ethical challenges. The present study highlights these challenges and proposes potential solutions to allow the sharing of data in a timely, responsible and effective manner. As more researchers around the globe adopt this blueprint, a unified global approach to unlocking the value of data for enhanced patient care will begin to emerge. The paper, entitled “Facilitating a culture of responsible and effective sharing of cancer genome data,” is published in Nature Medicine, Volume 22, Number 5, May 2016.


The Global Alliance for Genomics and Health is an international, non­profit alliance formed to accelerate the potential of genomic medicine to advance human health. Bringing together over 350 leading organizations working in healthcare, research, disease and patient advocacy, life science, and information technology, GA4GH Members are working together to create a common framework of tools, methods, and harmonized approaches and supporting demonstration projects to enable the responsible, voluntary, and secure sharing of genomic and clinical data.

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