Collaborating for a new enlightenment in healthcare

Thought leaders instrumental in developing innovative new drugs and treatments tailored to individual patients say emerging science can achieve better outcomes for all concerned.

The UK’s finest minds are already building on remarkable advances in the understanding of genetics, signposted a decade ago by the Human Genome Project.

We know that genetics can play a major role in the way people respond to medication. Understanding our genome should result in more effective and targeted medicine.

Personalised healthcare should provide doctors with more precise information to tailor their diagnoses and treatments to patients. It should also allow patients to have more detailed information and better control over how they maintain and improve their health.

“The human genome was fully sequenced in 2003 and there have been some notable advances since then,” says Ed Percy, vice president, global healthcare, at IT and business process services provider CGI.

“But there is a bigger vision and enormous potential that will require a new enlightenment between science and industry,” he says. “This new enlightenment will combine the genomic knowledge – analysis of genetic patterns – emerging from the scientific world with data from healthcare, incorporating lifestyle information, to create a picture of who a citizen truly is – we call this the Citizen Phenotype.”

CGI, who purchased technology innovator Logica last year, is joining forces with leading software specialists Oracle in a bid to facilitate greater collaboration to enable a personalised-medicine approach for the UK.

As a participant in the original Human Genome Project, the UK is home to a number of important research programmes. At universities and hospitals around the country, researchers are developing treatments based on the identification of defective genes.

Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy… US President Barack Obama

In the ten years since sequencing the first human genome, hundreds of common variants have been identified that each make a small difference to many diseases.

Genetics can also explain why two people of the same age and gender may react differently to a drug, and why some medicines can cure some people but harm others.

However, a growing number of scientists are concerned that UK research in this area is too fragmented and solely focused on genomic data, when the NHS has a vast amount of healthcare data that should be used in conjunction with genomics. They complain of a silo mentality and excessive academic secrecy which is forcing them to work in isolation.

Given the volume and variety of data necessary for more personalised medicine and healthcare, sophisticated information technology is needed to gather and store the data, maintain appropriate security and privacy controls, and effectively communicate and utilise the data to help both doctors and patients.

This demand for pooled information and data has prompted CGI to offer the Oracle Health Sciences Translational Research Center – an online platform and services that enable research to be nationally, and internationally, collaborative.

Oracle Health Sciences Translational Research Center enables researchers and clinicians to aggregate data from numerous internal and external sources, to identify new predictive biomarkers. It helps practitioners identify best practices for diagnosis and treatment, and more effective and safe therapies for patients.

“The ability to aggregate data, normalise it and, most importantly, effectively analyse it to yield previously unavailable insight is essential to unlocking the potential of personalised medicine,” says Joel Haspel, director strategy, Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), at Oracle Health Sciences.

“We are really changing the face of medicine. The platform enables researchers and physicians to gain the insight needed to identify patients with similar characteristics and advance personalised cancer treatments, for example.”

The vast and growing number of genome projects, coupled with the explosion of big data that these projects both produce and consume, need a secure platform, where information can be shared for the benefit of all. But Mr Haspel warns that this is not happening.

“The fractured nature of care and research in the UK results in scientists being denied the opportunity to access new and interesting large data samples,” he says.

Mr Percy agrees: “As every scientist knows, the bigger and more integrated the data sample, the better the potential findings. By sharing data on the platform, scientists can make real leaps of understanding, bench-to-bedside research cycles can be reduced and patients can see the benefits quicker.”

Collaboration will benefit the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors, by bringing new drugs and treatments to market quicker, therefore benefiting the UK economy as a whole, as well as helping the country to retain its valuable human capital.

“If we don’t provide the best quality research for our most talented researchers and doctors, they will be tempted to undertake better quality research elsewhere, and the United States is currently the most attractive environment,” warns Mr Percy.

In the US, many leading healthcare providers are now implementing this technology to maximise their use of data to personalise care. At institutions, such as the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre (UPMC), data sharing is already commonplace. The MD Anderson Cancer Center, part of the University of Texas, also relies on sharing data for its Moon Shots Progam, likening the significance of the first man landing on the moon in 1969 to the prospect of ending cancer.

Data sharing is now paying off in America and UK scientists are concerned they might be left playing catch-up. The race is on for scientists to unlock the full benefits of the Human Genome Project but, unless researchers in the UK can open up the source of medical data, they face a serious handicap.

The original Human Genome Project was an international collaboration and succeeded by pooling knowledge and expertise. The project achieved its main aim of sequencing and identifying all three billion chemical units in human DNA. What remains is the further discovery of genetic roots of disease to enable development of effective treatments for currently incurable conditions.

The government wants to make the UK the best place in the world for health research. It sees potential in the greater use of genomics which is already being used to track the superbugs MRSA and Clostridium difficile, as well as treating some cancers.

With medical research and encouragement of innovation at the heart of cost-efficient NHS policies, the CGI-Oracle initiative should be welcomed by ministers and researchers alike.

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