The American Society of Clinical Oncology, a nonprofit professional association, took a major leap into the world of big data on Wednesday. The professional association announced a collaboration with Ayasdi, a data analysis technology startup, in creating a database loaded with patient treatment information. The data analysis will be anonymous, but medical professionals can use the database to find treatments for their patients.
The news comes as something of a surprise because it is one of the few instances of late where big data might be viewed in a positive light. Thanks to Google, Facebook and other companies that tend to think of user information as a way to rack up advertising profits, big data’s reputation has suffered, and ownership of personal data and privacy concerns have comprised a major part of the conversation. Indeed, just last month, the French Finance Ministry floated a proposal to tax companies based on how much they profit from users’ internet data. On the other hand, the most beneficial everyday application of big data is geo-location, which has a real (if limited) ability to improve the lives of its users.
Ayasdi’s current use of data speaks to the benefits that come with access to human data (and the ability to analyze it extensively). Treatment discovery based on patient data is more beneficial than data from controlled studies because there is more of it, and it is varied. It can be filtered by genetics and lifestyle. For example, the database being built could allow doctors to search for treatments that work best for smokers ages 30 to 35.
Ayasdi plans to have the database provide needed information before it is even asked to do so. The approach has had some success; the algorithms behind Ayasdi’s system found a subgroup of breast cancer patients that had such a high chance of survival (based on their genetic makeup) that they did not need chemotherapy.
The potential to track and use medical data more effectively can be startling. According to the ASCO, 95% of information about 1.6 million U.S. cancer patients is locked up in non-digital formats accessible to almost nobody. Making those patient case studies widely available could be a major step towards determining more effective treatments.
Ayasdi has $10 million in a first round of venture funding led by Khosla Ventures. It also has $3.5 million in grants from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the Pentagon agency responsible for building new technology for the U.S. military, as well as the National Science Foundation. And the vast potential for using their information hints at applications for big data not only in other areas of medicine, but in other domains with public benefits such as education and crime, where elected officials are always in search of the next big thing.