Systems Medicine: Big Data To The Rescue?

Words by Stephen McGrath

Medical researchers around the world have a growing interest in the concept of “systems medicine”, the idea of mass-pooling large amounts of patients’ medical information and analyzing it to spot patterns in the formation of chronic diseases. “It hasn’t reached the clinic yet,” says Marc Kirschner, project manager at Coordinating Action Systems Medicine (CASyM). “People are just starting to realize that systems medicine might be a useful concept, and worth implementing in clinical research systems.”

Currently, medical research tends to focus on one or two specific risk factors related to chronic diseases, such as smoking or alcohol. A systems-medicine approach aims to be more comprehensive, analyzing millions of patients’ data, and examining how ten various risk factors interact with each other in real-time.

CASyM is acting with 22 partners from 11 countries to develop a platform for countries throughout Europe to implement systems medicine within a four-year period. If systems medicine proves to be effective in understanding pathways to chronic disease it could be a useful resource in the fight to keep people away from hospitals as people live longer into advanced age.

The biggest hurdle is data protection legislation. If sensitive data is to be shared en masse, systems will have to be extremely secure. “It’s worked in the [mobile] banking sector, so why wouldn’t it work in the medical sector?” says Taavi Tillman, a keen advocate of systems medicine and a PhD fellow in public health medicine at University College London.“Right now, medical research is very ignorant of systems research. It wouldn’t just help research on a national scale, but also on a global scale.”

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