Finland’s Biobanks offer the Big Data medical research will need for personalized medicine
The medical community shares a vision where personalized care for patients replaces the current approach of developing treatments for the average patient. Today, many millions of patients are taking medications which do not help them. Societies pay, and pay a lot for this inaccuracy. Genomic research has been the key to changing this paradigm. The first personalized cancer therapies using gene-based diagnostics and treatment are now in the clinic. However, to bring personalized medicine into the mainstream we are going to need the help of Big Data.
The term Big Data can only be invoked when one has built a critical mass. Only when that point has been reached, can data be processed into knowledge. We have that critical mass now says Olli Carpén, Professor and Research Director at the University of Helsinki, Helsinki Biobank and University of Turku. “Finnish biobanks already hold tens of millions of patient samples. The Helsinki University Hospital alone has 4 million blood and tissue samples from 1.4 million patient cases. Turku’s Auria biobank has also built up a similar store. With the first samples going back over 60 years we also have valuable longitudinal data in our biobanks,” Carpén says.
Given the cost of the labor involved in taking, annotating and storing samples, Finland’s biobanks have been a billion-dollar investment by society. And so far, virtually untapped. “It is no exaggeration to call the biobanks a new natural resource for Finland,” says Carpén.
Big Data from biobanks will be key for the genomic revolution to be finally realized
Sequencing of the first human genome promised a revolution in pharmaceutical development. With little apparent change in medicine and pharma development for a decade many feel it was an empty promise. Carpén disagrees, at least partly. ”The diagnosis and treatment of many monogenic diseases has been revolutionized, but these was the low-hanging fruit which helped patients with rare diseases. Genes certainly play an underlying role in the chronic diseases which affect most of the population, but overall other factors are usually more important,” he reveals.
It’s a truly complex problem to solve but Carpén isn’t discouraged. He believes cognitive computing will unlock the information in Finland’s biobanks and welcomes IBM’s recent decision to establish a Watson Health Center of Excellence in Finland. The fact that IBM chose Finland for its first National Imaging Center of Excellence outside the USA underlines how advanced our research ecosystem that combines hospital's electronic health records with biobanks really is, he says.
True breakthroughs for the major diseases like diabetes, dementia or chronic pain will come from research into phenotyping, which describes the result of the interaction between the expression of genes, diet and the environment. This is ultimately the kind of research the Finnish biobank model is designed to enable. “Seamlessly integrating genomic information from physical sample with our digitalized healthcare information and self-evaluations will enable longitudinal, perhaps lifetime, studies of diseases,” enthuses Carpén.
Finland invites international collaboration in research
“In terms of raw data we already have too much of a good thing considering our own research resources in Finland,” says Carpén. “The endemic diseases we wish to treat are universal, so it makes sense to invite others to help unravel all the factors involved. Ultimately, we will also want to translate our findings into daily clinical care and enable personalized medicine. Big pharma companies are the undisputed experts in translational medicine, so we really need to make sure they know Finland welcomes them as partners for our biobanks,” Carpén adds.