Ana Ripoll, President of the Bioinformatics Barcelona Association – BIB
We live in a society that is able to generate massive amounts of data in seconds. In fact, it has been estimated that in two days we generate as much data as we did since the birth of civilization to the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. The health system is no exception in the age of large data, now that the available data come from a variety of sources, such as electronic health records, laboratories, medical imaging systems and medical notes. In addition to these more traditional sources, we can add the data generated by the patient through electronic monitoring devices in real time, mobile applications, social networks or patients’ forums. Currently these data are scattered, disconnected, in various formats, and even in some cases without digitizing, and thus it’s difficult to process and to analyze. Extracting the valuable information all this data contained in the health system will help increase biomedical knowledge so we can advance towards a personalized, participatory, predictive and preventive medicine.
Public health policies need to use the big data in a comprehensive and integrated way, by applying the principles of data sharing and recycling, creating a knowledge network able to connect heterogeneous data banks. In addition, advancing the development of new methodologies for data simulation and analysis will reveal the disease behaviour and develop epidemiological predictions. Similarly, new approaches are needed to improve the current risk stratification. Clearly, the health system needs systems that take into account the combined effect of environmental, genetic and people’s lifestyle variables in order to plan the actions to be undertaken in the field of public health. On the other hand, the possibility of uncovering new insights will support health authorities in decision-making to develop approaches that would put health at the centre of their policies and would reduce costs in the health sector.
But in order to achieve these objectives, the existence and availability of biomedical data is not enough; we also need bioinformatics, i.e. the research area in which computer science and information technologies are applied for the treatment of biological data with the aim of developing improvements.
The development of bioinformatics in this area requires the development of research and application of improvements in the value chain of big health data, i.e. the capacity to acquire and record data; tidying, extracting and recording information; integration, aggregation and display; processing the queries, modelling and analyzing the data to finally reach an appropriate interpretation. In addition, new computer architectures, techniques, algorithms and analysis to manage exchange and reuse this wealth of data are also required. Obviously, this process should contain appropriate measures to ensure that social issues such as privacy and the protection of patient data are respected, as well as measure that encourages the involvement of people who work within the health system.
Clearly, addressing all components of the value chain of big data requires a transformation in the way we work to boost coordination between various disciplines and networks as well as the integration of various technologies. This task requires developing bioinformatics professionals who have strong skills in various disciplines such as computer science, biology, mathematics, statistics and chemistry, among others. What we need is to incorporate these professionals in hospitals, research centres and businesses so they can create bridges of communication and promote interaction between biologists, doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs and citizens. Similarly, it would be ideal if the medical practitioners would become familiar with the new possibilities offered by bioinformatics to address health data, to promote their incorporation into the day to day care because, ultimately, the progress of research ought to reach the patient. Unfortunately, there is a lack of bioinformatics professionals, and this is where we need to introduce this discipline and create a platform like Bioinformatics Barcelona (BIB) that brings together all professionals involved in the value chain of big data, such as universities, hospitals, research centres, large scientific facilities and businesses.
Recently, BIB has already been established as an association with more than 30 member organizations and aims to catalyze initiatives and collaborative dynamics in the bioinformatics field. All these entities will be interconnected by a network needed for the treatment of big data so they can efficiently share resources, make tools, services and applications available to all, design and implement a best practices code, identify specific training needs, establish synergies between partners and generate new socioeconomic opportunities that give momentum in the health sector. Furthermore, this network should facilitate advances in the research field, promote the transfer of knowledge and technology and increase the competitiveness of the industrial sector. As for the training, BIB has as a vehicular objective, the formation of new experts and highly skilled and competitive bioinformatics professionals demanded by different sectors. In this sense, BIB, has already kick-started the design of pioneering training programs throughout the state: this year 2015-16 the training of computer technicians with bioinformatics orientation has been launched and for the 2016-17 course, the first intercollegiate of bioinformatics grade in the Catalan University System is expected to launch. Therefore, considering the potential we have, BIB aims to turn Barcelona and Catalonia in a leading scientific cluster in southern Europe and a strategic node, thanks to a highly competitive ecosystem and a privileged geographical location opened to the world.