Over the course of the two-day Big Data in Precision Health conference hosted by the Stanford Medicine, which began Wednesday, speakers from academia, government, and industry are dialing in on the integration of precision health and big data, sharing their experiences and insights into taming immense datasets to improve health care.
“We have a historic opportunity to embrace the vision of precision health... with focus on prediction and prevention, and when disease does occur, to cure it decisively,” said Dean Lloyd Minor, MD. “We’ve translated fundamental discoveries into advances in therapeutics, and we'll continue to do that, but now we also have the opportunity to make discoveries not necessarily based on mechanistic analyses, but on deriving information from vast treasure troves of data that already exist. That’s really the power of big data.”
In the conference’s first keynote, Eric Dishman, the director of the National Institute of Health’s All of Us Research Program, described the program, which aims to gather health data from more than one million people in the United States to improve and accelerate health research and care.
While highlighting the mission of All of Us, Dishman gracefully wove in a powerful personal story of his own diagnosis: a rare form of kidney cancer, when he was only 19 years old. In trying to understand more about his case, doctors would extrapolate data from the average population of people who had his disease — most of whom were 65 or 70 — which, he explained, wasn't the best match for his personal diagnosis. “It was a wakeup call to me — everyone is doing the best they can with the data they have but it doesn’t mean that’s the truth for any given individual.”
In the first session of Wednesday afternoon, a trio of speakers highlighted one of the best embodiments of precision health today: cancer immunotherapy.
In back-to-back talks, Stanford cancer immunotherapy specialist Crystal Mackall, MD, and Adnan Jaigirdar, MD, a medical officer at the Food and Drug Administration, detailed the yin and yang of innovation and regulation — how cutting-edge treatments that reprogram a patient’s own immune cells to fight their tumors make it out of the lab and into the hands of doctors.
Wrapping up the discussion on cancer immunotherapies, Jennifer Wargo, MD, associate professor of surgical oncology and genomic medicine at MD Anderson Cancer Center, discussed what she considers an emerging frontier in precision health: the microbiome, or the mass of bacteria housed in our guts. Her work looks at the relationship between microbiome composition and immunotherapy success. It turns out, the type and amount of bacteria in the gut indeed matter — something that, in theory, could eventually help boost efficacy of immunotherapy treatments for certain cancers.
Other speakers and sessions on the opening day of the conference included Rory Collins, FMedSci, the principal investigator of the UK Biobank, a project that runs deep characterization on the health of some 500,000 individuals, and venture capitalist Jillian Manus, shown above, who joined three other speakers to demystify the use of blockchain in health care — an idea that models data sharing on the same premise as Bitcoin — which ideally would securely open up access to health data for doctors and providers.
“The most incredible and interesting part about this is the ability to impact generations to come,” said Manus. “It’s really the sharing of this data that’s going to elevate everyone.”
Photo of Jillian Manus by Rod Searcey