Big data for medical research

The use of computers and big data is becoming increasingly important within medical research. It can be seen as an entirely new way of approaching problems that complement theoretical and experimental research. A conference taking place this week at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden will hold discussions on the possibilities of big data as well as challenges in the form of technology, legislation and ethics.

“The medical research of the future will use computers. We are inexorably dependent on computers and we want to reinforce computer-based methods within medical research”, says Ola Spjuth, coordinator at Swedish e-Science Research Center, which is headed by Karolinska Institutet and one of the organisers of the conference.

Epidemiology is one field of research where thousands of people contribute with millions or more data points. Other examples are DNA and protein sequencing, where researchers handle large amounts of data in order to find disease genes, markers for diseases or treatment results. Such research is not possible without advanced computer use. E-science is a term that is becoming increasingly significant and that is partially about combining computerised research with another field of research, such as medicine. The challenges are many, both strictly technical with research on algorithms, advanced computer-based methods and the use of supercomputers for simulations and calculations. Legal and ethical issues must also be discussed when data, which is often sensitive for the individual, is to be used, stored and handled safely.

Gilean McVean, head of the newly established Oxford Big Data Institute, Great Britain, will talk about how big data can be used in medical research. Further topics include what big data is, what is needed to analyse it and what is currently motivating the research community to invest in big data and e-science.

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