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June 5, 2013

Oxford University Unveils Big Medical Data Mining Facility

Alex Woodie

Medical researchers have high hopes that a new data mining project at Oxford University will yield new clues about how drug efficacy is affected by genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors in humans. The Li Ka Shing center has its sites set on crunching big data sets to deliver more personalized healthcare and unlocking the secrets for treating diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.

Advances in medicine have led to big increases in the volume of data collected and stored by medical researchers. Researchers now have access to everything from DNA sequences and electronic patient records, to results of clinical trials and national registries.

However, while the information is there, researchers largely lack the ability to make sense of it all. This is where the new Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Information and Discovery comes into play. The new center, which was formally unveiled in May on the campus of Oxford University in the UK, has two related components, including the Target Discovery Institute and the Big Data Institute.

The Big Data Institute is charged with sorting through massive data sets in search of links among items such as human genetics, infection rates, clinical trials, national registries, and individual’s lifestyle choices as depicted in medical records. The Target Discovery Institute will focus on speeding the early stages of drug discovery. The center says it will anonymize the data to protect individuals’ identities.

One ostensible goal of the new center is to chip away at the 90 percent failure rate for drugs that enter stage 2 clinical testing. When fully ramped up, the Li Ka Shing center will house a 600-strong multi-disciplinary team of biologists, chemists, statisticians, computer scientists, engineers, and clinical scientists.

Getting in front of Alzheimer’s Disease, which affects 18 million people worldwide, is one of the goals of Oxford’s Li Ka Shing Centre. “We’ve spent 29 years, we’ve spent $30 billion, and we still don’t know the answer” to Alzheimer’s, says Chas Bountra, professor of translational medicine at Oxford University and a former drug discovery scientist at GlaxoSmithKline, in a SkyNews video. “We need to change this paradigm. We can’t carry on like this. Alzheimer’s is a major crisis…that’s looming for many societies.”

Harnessing big data may provide an answer. “‘Big data will transform the way we treat patients and understand disease in the coming decades,” says Professor Andrew Hamilton, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, in a university publication. “We are collecting much of this data already. We owe it to ourselves to make full use of it and deliver more effective treatments for all of us as patients.”

David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the UK, was in attendance at last month’s grand opening of the new Li Ka Shing Centre at the 917-year-old university, as was Li Ka Shing, the Asian billionaire and philanthropists who donated £20 million ($31 million) to help fund the project. The UK government also chipped in £20 million to help with the center, which is expected to cost £90 million when it is fully built and staffed.

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