Big data is revolutionising medicine

UK drug maker GlaxoSmithKline is teaming up with a Silicon Valley data company. That’s a big deal for the company and the wider industry.

I don’t know about you, but for me the term “big data” has some clearly negative connotations.

Whenever I hear that term, I immediately think about George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 in which the government listens to everything you say…

Or I think about the Stasi, the East German secret police that bugged its own citizens and gathered files on them…

Or I think about Mark Zuckerberg and how Facebook is tracking my every move on the web so they can try to sell me stuff they think I like.

But big data doesn’t always have to be used for evil. Especially in the area of healthcare and biotech, big data can be our best friend.

Last week British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) announced it’s partnering up with a Silicon Valley company that collects data on people’s DNA.

It’s a move that’s going to transform the way the company develops new drugs.

This is big news for GSK, but it’s expected to have a profound impact on the wider pharma industry as well.

Biotech on the high street

The future of medicine is a three letter word.

DNA is the key to everything. It unlocks all the information needed to build and maintain our bodies. That’s why DNA research is the single biggest driver of the biotech revolution.

Once we understand how the human body actually works in its finest details, we’ll be better able to fight and even prevent diseases.

That’s easier said than done, of course. Our genomes contain three billion letters of DNA. Good luck going through all that “raw data” and figure out how everything works!

But scientists (with the help of clever technology like machine learning) are making progress in this area.

So much so that you’re now able to test your own DNA for all kinds of conditions.

No need to see your doctor first! Companies like 23andMe and Helix are now selling DNA kits on the high street.

These companies collect your data (with your permission) and do something good with it as well, like creating new therapies.

They also do something less useful with your data, like making custom-made socks with your unique DNA sequence on them (though I have to say that does sound like an original gift idea).

“Since the mapping of the first human genome in 2002 a major effort has been underway to gather more genetic information and find the links between genes and physical traits,” says our biotech expert Tom Bulford.

“Having found some such associations we are now at the next stage, whereby we are using this genetic information to inform treatment.

“Thanks to genetics we are better able to understand the cause of disease, and this informs the design of new drugs.”

Consumer genetics companies are gathering highly useful knowledge about the human body.

This data could prove invaluable for pharmaceutical companies when they’re developing new medicines.

That’s exactly what a British drug maker realised…

DNA goldmine

FTSE 100 company GlaxoSmithKline is one of the big players in the pharma industry with a market cap of £76.9bn.

Last week GSK announced a new partnership that will transform its own research and could have a big impact on the pharma industry as a whole.

It’s teaming up with 23andMe and as part of the deal it’ll invest $300 million in this US direct-to-customer genetics company.

Why is this a big deal?

23andMe has over five million customers. About 80% of users opt in to its research and fill out surveys about their health and habits. It claims that every person in its database takes part in roughly 200 research studies.

That’s a potential goldmine for a company in the drug testing business.

GSK’s decision to collaborate with 23andMe is clearly highly influenced by its new American Chief Scientific Officer Hal Barron, notes Tom Bulford.

“The USA is leading the field in ‘new’ medicine, which is based upon computer crunching of data. This data comes from health records, drug trials, Fitbits, etc., but much the largest and most influential source is genetic data.”

“For decades we have understood that our genes either directly cause or otherwise predispose us to outcomes that affect our health.

“We are now able to design drug trials to target only patients who exhibit those genetic characteristics that make them likely to respond. Using gene therapy we can tackle diseases at source by altering the underlying genetic cause.”

That’s the idea behind GSK and 23andMe working together. They’ll use 23andMe’s database to select better targets for GSK’s drug trials.

Barron already gave an example of how this might work in practice.

GSK has developed an experimental treatment for Parkinson’s disease that acts on a particular mutation. 23andMe then sifts through its database and ta-da: GSK now has 250 people with Parkinson’s who have this mutation to test its drug on.

As you can imagine, this is going to speed up the process of finding patients for clinical trials.

This partnership with 23andMe is significant for GSK, but it is also significant for the wider industry.

“It validates the new approach to medicine and adds a big player that will have the financial and marketing clout to accelerate research, run drug trials and bring new treatments to market.”

This new approach to medicine relies heavily upon data interpretation, which is why it’s got the attention of Silicon Valley. More of these partnerships are likely to follow.

Big data is going to revolutionise the way we find cures for diseases. And a British company now looks to be at the forefront of this revolution.

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