Frontiers/KCALSI Symposium focuses on turning data into cures

By Andy Hyland

Frontiers/KCALSI SymposiumResearchers in academic institutions and the private industry are collaborating to find new ways to turn large repositories of data into new cures and therapies.

Those efforts were the focus of the 2013 Research Symposium, “Integrating Technology into Translational Research,” presented by Frontiers: The Heartland Institute for Clinical and Translational Research and the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute (KCALSI).

As technology has improved over the last 30 years, so have biomedical informatics capabilities: the ability to generate, access and aggregate larger and larger amounts of data.

“The question is whether or not it’s valuable,” said Anthony C. Barnes, Ph.D., MBA, Chief Executive Officer of Bionometrix, LLC, and a consultant tasked with taking a survey of the region’s bioinformatics assets. “We’re in an era where the people with the best data win, especially if it’s really good data.”

He said the region already is strong in this area. After studying the region’s bioinformatics assets, he found that the Kansas City region, including corridor along Interstate 70 from Manhattan, Kan., to Columbia, Mo., has about 85 percent of the bioinformatics capabilities of the University of Washington, which is recognized as a global leader in the field.

Biomedical informatics is analogous to a fishing trip, said L. Russell Waitman, Ph.D., Director of Medical Informatics and Associate Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

The fish are the different kinds of data needed to answer a research question, and the scientific researchers are the fishermen, he said. Informatics professionals help make it easier for the fishermen to find the fish.

“Our job is to build a hatchery,” he said, flooding the lake with as many good-sized fish as possible, making it easier for researchers to get a bite. Bioinformaticists also often serve as a guide, helping researchers find the best ways to look for meaningful data.

Waitman, the director of the Frontiers Biomedical Informatics core, has developed a number of new ways for researchers to more effectively access the vast amounts of data available to them through electronic health records.

Those new methods can take the form of new software tools to help researchers set up new questions or helping researchers de-identify medical records, gaining access to billions of facts after oversight by the university, hospital, and clinics without having to know the identity of patients.

“The power of these data can really help us advance science, but at the same time, we can ensure that the privacy of patients is protected,” he said.

People who attended the symposium also heard from members of a panel on ways to more effectively recruit patients to enroll in clinical trials in the digital age by using websites, Facebook and other tools.

Companies that provide electronic medical records for hospitals, Cerner Corp. and Epic Systems Corporation, are also working on new ways to help researchers use those records to advance medical discoveries.

“The complexity and volume of information is overwhelming to clinicians,” said Mark Hoffman, Cerner vice president.

The goal, he said, is to use these new capabilities to shrink down the time it takes to get a scientific discovery into clinical practice, a process that can take several years.

“Structuring and optimizing ‘real world’ clinical data is fundamental to reaching the scale of data needed to accelerate translational research,” Hoffman said.

Frontiers is supported by a Clinical and Translational Science Award grant from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences at the National Institutes of Health awarded to the University of Kansas Medical Center, grant #UL1TR000001.