How U of T is Delivering on the Big Data Promise

September 2/2014

The Dalla Lana School of Public Health in partnership with the Canadian Institutes for Health Research Strategic Training for Advanced Genetic Epidemiology (CIHR STAGE) and the Fields Institute hosted a workshop, Big Data for Health, July 3 and 4, 2014.  Attended by 100 scientists, the event was a great success in charting an initial course for U of T to capitalize on research opportunities created by the rapidly increasing availability of large volumes of health data.

But what are “big data,” and why are basic scientists and public health investigators convinced it’s the next frontier of health discovery?

In the industrial information management sector, big data computers can capture massive volumes of data rapidly and can react to events as they are happening. The health sector has been slower to respond, but is now gearing up to use complex data in real time to guide patient care and, over a longer time frame, to perform research.  U of T has the critical mass needed to access and exploit a variety of large, linkable health data-sets, and this was the workshop’s central focus.

According to one of the Big Data for Health workshop organizers, France Gagnon, big data promises to accelerate progress in human health.  As a Professor of Epidemiology at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and CIHR STAGE co-director, Gagnon researches genetic and epigenetic factors involved in cardiovascular disease and other common complex diseases to better understand and manage illness. She also acknowledges the challenges surrounding this new research avenue.

“Thanks to the massive drop in human genome sequencing costs, we have a tsunami of data, which has created a data management and analysis problem,” said Gagnon, noting that data integration and large studies are required to deliver medicine tailored to patients’ own genetic and epigenetic make-up.

“Finding ways to break down the disciplinary, institutional and national silos is imperative and U of T is stepping up to the plate,” Gagnon continued.

Peter C. Goodhand, Acting Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Genomics, says that in order to process the large data sets needed to identify biomarkers involved in drug response, a shared platform with harmonized data and results easily available to researchers, tool developers, clinicians and patients is crucial. Goodhand, along with world-renowned genomics researcher Tom Hudson, were keynote speakers at the workshop.

Hudson is President and Scientific Director of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research and says that while one single institution or country cannot go it alone, Ontario is well-positioned to lead the big data charge.

“Ontario has significant clinical and population research expertise and resources that can be strategically linked to make Ontario a leader in big data analytics,” said Hudson, also a Professor in U of T’s Departments of Molecular Genetics and Medical Biophysics, in reference to the Ontario Health Study.

Basic scientists like Hudson are collaborating with public health researchers to create the infrastructure that will allow U of T scientists and partner institutions to gain access to information from the Ontario Health Study, and others, to develop new strategies for big data mining and discovery. 

“One particular resource that should underpin future research is the linkage of electronic medical records, health administrative information and laboratory research data,” said Professor David Henry, workshop co-organizer and senior advisor to the Dalla Lana School of Public Health’s Dean and the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation’s Director.

Henry explains that medical records contain critical information like the presence of important diseases and their outcomes where research data provide genomic information. He also notes that this work is possible because of the comprehensive health data platform maintained by the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) in Ontario, which is now supported in part by the CIHR Strategy for Patient-Oriented Research (SPOR).

While the final form of Ontario’s health data research platform isn’t yet clear, U of T scientists are confident that they will play a key role in harnessing big data to solve some today’s health challenges.

Big Data for Health keynote speakers and links to their presentations are outlined below:

·         Peter C. Goodhand, Acting Executive Director of The Global Alliance for Genomics and Health, Ontario, Canada

o   Watch video: https://media.library.utoronto.ca/play.php?Etbqfqxcbrfe&id=19378&access=uoft

·         Tom Hudson, President and Scientific Director  of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research

o   Watch video: https://media.library.utoronto.ca/play.php?HeKXXXP8kZYJ&id=19383&access=uoft

·         Astrid Guttmann, Associate Professor, Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, and lead of ICES’ Health System Planning and Evaluation Program

o   Watch video: https://media.library.utoronto.ca/play.php?nDQE730g4PXf&id=19379&access=uoft

·         Rick Glazier, DLSPH Professor and Lead of the Institute for Clinical and Evaluative Sciences’ Primary Care and Population Health Program

o   Watch video: https://media.library.utoronto.ca/play.php?erJ3IDdMw_GG&id=19381&access=uoftThe Dalla Lana School of Public Health in partnership with the Canadian Institutes for Health Research Strategic Training for Advanced Genetic Epidemiology (CIHR STAGE) and the Fields Institute hosted a workshop, Big Data for Health, July 3 and 4, 2014.  Attended by 100 scientists, the event was a great success in charting an initial course for U of T to capitalize on research opportunities created by the rapidly increasing availability of large volumes of health data.