From Code to Cure

David J. Craig at Columbia Magazine: “Armed with enormous amounts of clinical data, teams of computer scientists, statisticians, and physicians are rewriting the rules of medical research….

The deluge is upon us.

We are living in the age of big data, and with every link we click, every message we send, and every movement we make, we generate torrents of information.

In the past two years, the world has produced more than 90 percent of all the digital data that has ever been created. New technologies churn out an estimated 2.5 quintillion bytes per day. Data pours in from social media and cell phones, weather satellites and space telescopes, digital cameras and video feeds, medical records and library collections. Technologies monitor the number of steps we walk each day, the structural integrity of dams and bridges, and the barely perceptible tremors that indicate a person is developing Parkinson’s disease. These are the building blocks of our knowledge economy.

This tsunami of information is also providing opportunities to study the world in entirely new ways. Nowhere is this more evident than in medicine. Today, breakthroughs are being made not just in labs but on laptops, as biomedical researchers trained in mathematics, computer science, and statistics use powerful new analytic tools to glean insights from enormous data sets and help doctors prevent, treat, and cure disease.

“The medical field is going through a major period of transformation, and many of the changes are driven by information technology,” says George Hripcsak ’85PS,’00PH, a physician who chairs the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC). “Diagnostic techniques like genomic screening and high-resolution imaging are generating more raw data than we’ve ever handled before. At the same time, researchers are increasingly looking outside the confines of their own laboratories and clinics for data, because they recognize that by analyzing the huge streams of digital information now available online they can make discoveries that were never possible before.” …

Consider, for example, what the young computer scientist has been able to accomplish in recent years by mining an FDA database of prescription-drug side effects. The archive, which contains millions of reports of adverse drug reactions that physicians have observed in their patients, is continuously monitored by government scientists whose job it is to spot problems and pull drugs off the market if necessary. And yet by drilling down into the database with his own analytic tools, Tatonetti has found evidence that dozens of commonly prescribed drugs may interact in dangerous ways that have previously gone unnoticed. Among his most alarming findings: the antibiotic ceftriaxone, when taken with the heartburn medication lansoprazole, can trigger a type of heart arrhythmia called QT prolongation, which is known to cause otherwise healthy people to suddenly drop dead…(More)”