Many of the life-altering advances that we are seeing today in healthcare, biopharma, and diagnostics reflect the tremendous innovations occurring in big data and precision medicine. The landscape is changing rapidly and the pace of change is accelerating exponentially. Such drastic and dynamic change is vastly increasing the potential for new drugs, therapies, individualized treatments, and perhaps even cures for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other diseases that kill thousands, if not millions of people every year. One thing is for certain – the intersection of technology, data, science, and healthcare is exploding at a propitious time as the world confronts the global COVID-19 pandemic.
In a recent interview, the CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine argued that predictive analytics, precision medicine, and artificial intelligence (AI) are the future of medicine, and stated that the use of big data assisted by AI will be the key to creating personalized treatments for people suffering from COVID-19.
“[We are] trying to analyze big data sets to better divide our patients up so that we can provide more personalized care for them. COVID-19 is a great example; it’s very different in different people.” Paul Rothman, MD, told the MediaLine. “To use big data, to understand that and find sets of patients that will respond similarly to a therapeutic agent is really important. I think that’s the future of medicine: the use of predictive analytics to segment patients that will respond in a homogeneous way to a therapeutic.”
Completion of the first human genome project in the early part of the 21st century catapulted the science of targeted therapies, giving medical researchers a new lens through which to guide their work.
“The project was a key driver of today’s modernized clinical trials that take advantage of a massive amount of molecular data that was not previously available. This has served as a blueprint for precision medicine,” writes Dr. Angela Qu, Vice President, and Arlene Hughes, Senior Director, at Parexel Biotech. “Precision medicine has not only impacted drug development, but also drug discovery and disease diagnosis, allowing scientists to use molecular characteristics to define diseases and moving diagnosis away from clinical signs and symptoms.”
Breast cancer diagnosis and treatment is one clinical field, where, “precision medicine has played out for the past decade and has paved the way for standard biomarker testing guidelines, risk assessment and screening protocols, as well as treatment plans that are now widely recognized and used,” writes Jen Buhay, PhD, precision medicine clinical program manager at McKesson.
Precision medicine and related applications are also seen as key to improving outcomes for patients with colorectal cancer, ovarian cancer, multiple myeloma, and prostate cancer. There is even evidence that new immunotherapy approaches can help mitigate the effects of bone cancer in dogs.
Biomedical researchers seeking customized treatments and therapies to battle these diseases and others are increasingly relying on big data to drive their work, as highlighted in a 2019 academic study titled “From Big Data to Precision Medicine,” co-authored by nine experts in the field.
“The development of Big data approaches has greatly enhanced our ability to probe which ‘parts’ of biology may be dysfunctional. The goal of precision medicine aims to take this approach one step further, by making that information of pragmatic value to the practicing clinician,” the authors explain. “The challenge of reducing biology to its component parts, then identifying which can and should be measured to choose an optimal intervention, the patient population that will benefit and when they will benefit most cannot be overstated. Yet the increasing use of hypothesis-free, Big data approaches promises to help us reach this aspirational goal.”
We are witnesses to the exciting revolution taking place in this innovative field as we learn daily about breakthroughs in areas like precision diagnostics of acute infectious diseases, personal mobile and contextual precision medicine, artificial intelligence for imaging of brain emergencies, and early prediction of major adverse cardiovascular events using remote monitoring. These are just a few of the clinical applications at the intersection of big data and precision medicine.
The trove of rich information provided by big data may hold a key to treating those suffering from the effects of COVID-19. Scientists at Gladstone Institutes, for example, are using a novel approach to reduce the uncertainties inherent in treating COVID-19 cases by deploying biomarkers to help them understand the severity of the disease and to identify specific disease outcomes.
“With the global case number approaching 15 million by July 2020, the potential pool of data is large and the answers gleaned from it could have a strong impact,” according to the company. “With good predictive biomarkers, health care providers can use this information to triage patients more effectively. Scientists can take advantage of the individual molecular signatures to glean insights into viral pathogenesis and the immune responses that likely produce the different clinical outcomes. Scientists can then parlay this knowledge into the design of more effective therapies.”
The Gladstone research team is one of many leveraging the power of big data and corresponding analytical tools that can guide the development of personalized diagnostic and treatment schemes for patients suffering from COVID-19 and myriad other ailments. These exciting developments may represent just the tip of the iceberg in the evolution occurring at the intersection of data science and precision medicine.