Data that saves lives? It may sound like hyperbole, but there's a core of truth in the slogan. The analysis and evaluation of large quantities of data can produce results very useful to human healthcare. A number of research teams and businesses are now working on databases, analytical tools and data mappings. This work is helping to improve the state of knowledge on illnesses and sanitary conditions all over the world. Let's take a look at a selection of interesting projects:
Goodbye to the 'flu
Big data is pushing influenza research forward: As part of an international study by the University of Zurich, research is now being carried out into a large quantity of data records on genes and proteins and their influence on influenza viruses. The effort has already succeeded in identifying 20 previously unknown host molecules that tend to promote the growth of 'flu viruses in the cells of the respiratory tract. The results of big data analysis could well lead to the development of new therapies and medicines in the future.
A virus cartographer
The aim of virologist Nathan Wolfe and his Metabiota is to produce a comprehensive worldwide map of pathogens. The company advises governments and healthcare organizations on how to act in regions suffering epidemics and on how to deal with pandemics. To be able to identify regions at risk and forecast epidemics, Wolfe relies heavily on the digital recording and analysis of infection events all over the world, maintaining a comprehensive database of that information. The company's system was what enabled a Metabiota team to arrive on the ground early as the Ebola virus spread from Guinea to Sierra Leone in 2014.
Preventative medicine for premature babies
Big data analysis has a contribution to make in infant healthcare too. In Canada, for example, an evaluation of large amounts of data on the vital functions of premature infants has revealed that all vital functions of such babies suddenly became extremely stable about 24 hours before the outbreak of an infection. The discovery means that, even without being able to identify a logical explanation for the observed effect, doctors can now treat premature babies as soon as this unexpected stabilization in vital functions occurs. And Fehlbildungsmonitoring Sachsen-Anhalt, a German regional body set up to monitor infant deformities, has provided similar life-saving information. The facility, which has been in existence since 1980, collects findings on flexible parameters to identify factors that influence the frequency of congenital deformities.
www.angeborene-fehlbildungen.com (in german)
Patients helping patients
On patientslikeme.com, people receiving medical treatment can share their experiences with their illnesses and the treatments they have undergone, making the information available to the research community. For example, the website encourages patients to evaluate the effectiveness of their treatments and to list any side-effects. More than 400,000 patients are already using the site, uploading information on their experiences. The opportunity to compare experiences with other patients helps many others to better assess their own health status.
Data via SMS
As part of a big data project sponsored by Google, researchers and patients are making inroads against Malaria. In Africa, where the threat of the disease is at its greatest, but where constant exchange of information with doctors is difficult, patients have been provided with mobile phones and been networked with scientists as part of the "Malaria No More" initiative. Research teams are now supplied via SMS with information on the medicines being taken by patients. The data yielded by the system are now helping to provide insights into treatments and into how to prevent the spread of the tropical disease.