20 Mar 2013

Big data possibilities will soon lead to the elimination of most curable diseases, says AstraZeneca’s CTO, Angela Yochem.

Speaking at Computing‘s 2013 Big Data Summit, Yochem outlined how big data gathered by existing, available technology is already allowing an “efficacy of treatment” that can be applied to specific human phenotypes using personal genetic maps and geographical health data.

“This sort of thing will lead to the elimination of most curable diseases,” said Yochem.

She said data such as shopping habits and diet, gathered using wearable or even swallowable sensor technology, could pave the way to matching futurists’ estimates that “people now in their sixties will be living into their hundreds”.

“It’s not crazy, crazy future stuff,” said Yochem. “Technologies exist for all of this today. It doesn’t require crazy new technology that may or may not come to market in five years’ time.

“Today, we see medicines effective on a certain age group or ethnicity. But how about crafting medicine specifically for your genotype?” asked Yochem.

“That has pharmacological implications way beyond a ‘science piece’ – that’s business. It’s exciting to think about those opportunities.

“There are companies who have attempted a ‘chip on a pill’,” said Yochem. “You have a chip in your body that responds to the presence or absence of certain data. I’d expect [the effectiveness of that technology] to increase over time.

The crunching of all this big data, said Yochem, is going to owe a lot to the cloud.

“The cloud is still important. It’s no joke. We all now have access to what can be infinitely scalable processing power, immediately available, on-demand, at relatively low cost.”

Yochem revealed that AstraZeneca currently generates more medical data every two weeks “than is currently held in the US Library of Congress”.

Yochem implored the medical community to boost the usefulness of big data by computerising as much of their data flow as possible.

“The availability of data [is still an obstacle],” said Yochem. “Some of that is due to privacy concerns or regulations, but also because the medical records are on paper in someone’s office. It’s a shame because that data is lost to us.”

In terms of the ethics of holding data such as shopping histories and heart-rate and “mashing it all together”, Yochem said “it’s not for me to decide. But imagine how interesting it would be”.

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