Big Data's Impact On Cancer Research

Healthcare Use Case


Though significant advancements have been made in the past decade, cancer continues to be a devastating disease many people throughout the world have no choice but to confront. Even if someone doesn’t develop cancer in their lifetime, someone close to them likely will at some point. It is this lingering fear and the still high fatality rate that has led many researchers and physicians to spend their lives studying the disease and how to treat and eventually cure it. Considering in four deaths in the U.S. is a result of cancer or cancer-related effects, researchers need all the help they can get. In that effort, they may be aided by a recent trend in technology -- big data analytics tools. While many people may associate big data with businesses, it may prove to be a highly consequential player in the ongoing fight against cancer. Medical professionals are excited by the possibilities big data provides, and the results so far have been promising.

Big data involves taking large amounts of information, analyzing it, and finding hidden insights that would normally be very difficult to find using more traditional methods. On the surface, this may sound like it would be difficult to apply to the field of medicine and more specifically cancer research, but it actually fits in quite nicely in several ways. Take genomic sequencing, for example. This process essentially maps out the entire genome of a specific individual. While this process can yield some interesting findings unrelated to cancer research, doctors and gene specialists have used it to analyze the genes of cancer patients in the hopes of discovering certain patterns that can shed light into how and why cancer develops in certain people and not others. The idea of sequencing somebody’s genes may sound expensive, but due to advances in technology and analytics, the process can be done for around a thousand dollars. This means more data for researchers to use as they try to pinpoint the root causes of cancer.

This genomic mapping is part of the work of many research institutions including CancerLinq. The goal of the organization is to collect data from every cancer patient in the U.S. Whilst the task is daunting, the insights gained could prove pivotal in finding new ways to treat cancer. Through proper analysis, a specific pattern may emerge that can then be used by doctors to tell healthy patients if they may be at risk of developing cancer later in life. As any doctor will attest, early detection is key for survival, and stopping the problem before it has a chance to spread could reduce deaths by a significant amount.

But it’s not enough simply to analyze this unstructured data and pick out key data points. That data must also be applied to the correct treatment. Some researchers have been using IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence to prescribe the correct treatment for specific patients. Since every person is different, the same treatment may not always be as effective for everybody. Big data analytics helps researchers and physicians find the best treatments and drugs for each individual person. The data collected from these treatments can then be collected and shared with other doctors across the country to help match patients with treatments. With these improved methods for helping cancer patients, survival won’t just become a matter of percentages.

It is this effort to share big data that remains a vital component of all cancer research. If a breakthrough is made in one corner of the world, it needs to be shared with other medical professionals. Comparing results of different research efforts will make the big data analysis more accurate. That’s one of the ways Foundation Medicine is contributing to the fight against cancer. The group is collecting data on rare cancers, analyzing them within their enormous database, and sharing it with other doctors. Through a big data solutions comparison, this is far from an easy task, but it connects physicians with each other, giving them added resources to treat cancer patients, resources that weren’t available even a few years ago.

Much still needs to be done to make cancer go the way of polio, but there’s no denying that admirable progress has been made. Now that physicians and other medical professionals are using big data for cancer research, more knowledge has been gained into how the disease works and how it should be treated. We may be closer than we think to finally finding that elusive cure.


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