I've written a number of times about the fascinating progress that is being made in medicine when various strands of health data are combined to give researchers a holistic overview of us as patients.
A good example of this in action comes via a recent partnership between GSK and Regeneron, who will be working with a huge dataset from the UK Biobank to use the genetic data contained within to look for insights into disease.
Looking for the needle in the haystack
The researchers are looking at a specific portion of the genome known as the exome, which researchers believe is where the real action occurs in terms of drug therapies.
The partnership will see 50,000 samples sequenced via the Regeneron technology by the end of 2017, with the full 500,000 database of samples contained in UK Biobank expected to be done within three to five years. The new sequences will then be reincorporated into the Biobank to be accessed and used by fellow researchers, but only after GSK and Regeneron have exclusive access for nine months.
“As a result of the altruism and continued support of our volunteer participants, UK Biobank has amassed an enormous amount of securely-stored health, lifestyle, medical and biological data. Genetics research is already shaping better treatments. This exciting initiative is expected to start producing novel findings rapidly during this year and will make UK Biobank even more useful for health-related research," Biobank say.
“UK Government and charity medical research funders have invested about £200 million in UK Biobank. The costs of gene sequencing are falling, but doing it on a large scale is expensive – about $150 million if all 500,000 participants are sequenced. That is why it is so important that academia and industry work together. The initial investment by GSK and Regeneron will be a tremendous boost to the value of the UK Biobank resource for academic and industry researchers around the world, studying many different conditions.”
The project brings a number of complementary skills. GSK and Regeneron allow for the analysis to be done quickly and securely, with the commercial clout of both companies also allowing for a greater scope than could be possible through public means.
“I believe that we are in a new era of drug discovery because of a fundamental change in our understanding of human biology, driven largely by advances in human genetics. UK Biobank is one of the most important health resources available to scientists today, offering a rich source of information about health and disease and providing us with a unique opportunity to take that crucial first step in exploring new medicines – finding where to start," GSK say.
“Having been actively involved in the UK Biobank as a board member since 2013, I’m delighted that, through our collaboration with Regeneron, we can enrich this resource for the wider scientific community and also provide potential new opportunities for companies such as ours to develop new medicines.”
Whilst the project is undoubtedly fascinating, you sense this kind of big data analysis is only the start of what could be achieved as we start combining genetic data with the kind of lifestyle data we generate via wearable devices and mobile apps.
The European Commission have recently released a paper that examines the issue of health data in depth, including the key areas it is being used, and some of the policy implications involved.
The paper looked at a number of solutions in key policy areas, including:
- supporting the sustainability of health systems
- improving the quality and effectiveness of treatment
- combating chronic disease
- supporting healthy lifestyles.
In such a rapidly evolving field, it’s tempting for individual patients to be left behind somewhat, so a recent paper makes a crucial contribution to the dialog.
The paper provides a systematic review of the public attitude towards sharing personal health data for medical research purposes. In total, the paper analyzed 25 past studies into the matter, with this analysis primarily covering the UK and North America.