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Big Data in Biology and Health — The “Next Big Data Frontier”?

an infrared-like image of a human body amid talks about big data in biology and health

Big data in biology and health is seemingly gaining traction. In fact, experts believe biology and health will become the “next big data frontier”—a future in which patients can get care and treatment tailored to them because of digital information. This bold idea was voiced out by Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera and currently the Chief Computing Officer of Google’s Calico Labs. As head of Calico—Google’s anti-aging research firm—, Koller envisions data as one of the main tools that can help explore and expand personalized medicine. She even thinks it may eventually extend human life. While Google is doing a lot of great cancer and biotech research, possibly the most relevant right now, she believes the future of personalized medical care is still going to come from physicians and pharmacies—rather than by Google.

“The hope is that data will inspire what care is delivered, so that it’s no longer one-size-fits-all,” she said. This way—with big data in biology and health —, patients get tailored medical care that comes from the power of collected digital information. Explaining further, she said it is because peoples’ genomes, lifestyles and diets are all different. As such, her envisioned future is having treatment plans that are customized and targeted—making it much more effective than the medical care we know and receive at present. “It will take big data to figure that out,” she says.

The Big Deal on Big Data in Biology and Health

Big data is not necessarily a new idea. And having it coincide with electronic medical records (EMRs) is a bold idea that has been around for years. In fact, a 2014 paper published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) at the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health (NIH) PubMed Central focused on it. Titled “Big data: the next frontier for innovation in therapeutics and healthcare,” authors Naiem T. Issa, Stephen W. Byers and Sivanesan Dakshanamurthy discussed how big data not only affects personalized medicine but can also help in improving it in the future.

They called EMRs an “underutilized source of individual patient phenotypes”, saying they are filled with clinical data that showcases a record of patient progression, keeping information not only about their disease(s) and medication but also other important demographics. This record includes diet, medication, family history and even occupational exposures, among other things, which they believe are possibly vital information that may help distinguish uniquely observed effects on either treatment or toxicity. Throughout the paper, the authors emphasize how big data in medicine is no longer just in the research sector but is rather transitioning into the public community. This evolution helps drive new discoveries in biology and health, as well as the reassessment of healthcare policies currently in place, and even the reshaping of traditional clinical practice.

This is the big deal: through big data, medical experts can create effective, personalized healthcare programs. Big data—on this note, even big data in biology and health —further helps clinical approaches from a holistic level into an individual or patient-specific healthcare and maintenance.

The Goal Is to Help Everyone

On the discussion of big data in biology and health: While Koller has a firm belief in having bio and health become the next frontier for big data, Calico Labs is not focused on that just yet. Originally a research and development (R&D) idea within Google, the company is focused on anti-aging. Koller and her colleagues, at the moment, are still focused on understanding the aging processes of mammals.

Their current studies and projects are under Calico’s vision of understanding aging—whether it is a “set path” for everyone or if it can be modified to enhance and possibly extend human life. Koller says Calico’s work is a worthwhile endeavor in helping solve something prevalent in humans all over the world. Ultimately, it’s “going to help everybody,” she says.

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