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Big Data in BioMedicine conference focuses on the implications of data for world health

At the School of Medicine’s Big Data in BioMedicine Conference last week, academic and industry leaders came together to speak about the role of big data analysis in tackling unanswered questions about world health. Speakers represented a range of companies and organizations including Google, Genentech, Intel and the White House.

“Big data” — referring to the ability to capture and process massive amounts of information due to the growth of computing technology — is a recently developed buzzword that has been ringing in the ears of doctors, computer scientists, policymakers and data scientists because of its role in driving discovery and innovation in medicine and other fields.

According to conference organizer and Associate Professor of Medicine Euan Ashley, the conference aimed to bring together thought leaders committed to extracting new knowledge from big data — on the scale of terabytes and petabytes — to transform patient diagnosis and treatment, as well as disease prevention.

“The reach of the conference and the reach of the biomedical data science initiative is really multi-scale in many ways from atoms to atmosphere,” Ashley said.

This is the second year of the conference, which featured TED-style talks and a panel session encouraging audience engagement with speakers. Topics varied from big data in healthcare and infectious disease to computers and architecture.

One of the major topics during the conference was the challenge of big data mining in the context of patient privacy and data protection laws, especially in the medical field.

David Glazer, director of engineering at Google, spoke about his company’s goal of encouraging collaboration between those that have the technological tools and those that need the analysis in the life sciences.

“I don’t have genomic problems to solve; you have genomic problems to solve,” Glazer said. “I have tools.”

Glazer also spoke to other concerns, and audience members expressed worries about obstacles to this sort of partnership, as privacy-protected data is not open to study, even when made anonymous.

“The problem is most of our data sits behind firewalls — ethical, legal, and cultural firewalls,” an audience member said. “We talked a lot yesterday, today and tomorrow about how to get it out from behind there, but the reason Google is so powerful is that it works on publically available information.”

Glazer responded to concern over privacy-protected data by pointing to the potentials of self-reporting data, explaining that when the information is valuable to the population at large, he expects people to opt into volunteering their personal data.

Jim Davies, computer science professor from Oxford University, argued the first step would be to win patient trust by creating a suitable environment and encouraging education. Davies cited a genomics and biotechnology company, 23andMe, which provides DNA analysis services to customers already.

Currently, 23andMe continues to offer its Personal Genome Service, however is working with the FDA to receive marketing authorization for its reports. During the conference, San Francisco Chronicle sat down with 23andMe co-founder and CEO Anne Wojcicki, who reported that the company is still working with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to decide on the best way of moving forward. As of yet, the company’s kits are not FDA-approved.

The conference was well attended. Beyond the 350 people that physically attended the conference, approximately 1,000 tweets went out during the event, which hit an online audience of over 617,000 people, said Robin Daines, director of operations in the School of Medicine dean’s office, in a statement to The Daily.

James Xie ‘10 M.D. ‘14, a fourth-year medical student, and his classmates were unable to get tickets due to popular demand, and instead watched the live coverage together in a building adjacent to the conference.

“It’s been incredible to see the growth and interest in this field as someone who studied computer science and is now entering medicine,” Xie said.


Contact Alexis Garduno at agarduno ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.

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