Bioinformatics in Research, Patient Care & Education

UCSF School of Medicine leaders, including CTSI's Clay Johnston, MD, PhD (center) and Sam Hawgood, MBBS, dean of the UCSF School of Medicine (right), at the recent retreat.

In the world of bioinformatics, the rush is on to extract gold from a data mine.

The amount of data that health care providers and scientists collect from patients and research participants is growing explosively. This information ranges from the genetic to laboratory tests and imaging exams, to medical histories and information about treatment and outcomes — and in some cases to survey data on large populations.

This deluge of data and the bioinformatics capabilities necessary to take advantage of it were the focus of this year’s daylong UCSF School of Medicine leadership retreat on January 20. In his welcome address, Dean Sam Hawgood, MBBS, outlined his goal for the day — to engage campus leaders in the question of how to optimally develop, organize and integrate clinical-outcome data, research data, business intelligence, and population data so that information is accessible and usable to empower research and improve medical practice.

Making Greater Use of Available Data to Improve Care

Some have compared efforts to take advantage of the data to trying to drink from a fire hose. Consider DNA as an example. Our genetic variations contain clues to disease risk, disease prognosis and treatment response. The identification of such clues by scientists and their translation into medical practice is a major enterprise. Soon, expense will no longer be a major limitation to obtaining a readout of an individual’s entire genetic makeup. “A complete human genome assay will be an assay like any other, at least in terms of cost and time,” Hawgood said.

However, as vivid as the water hose analogy may be, it might be more apt to say that in many organizations data of many types dwells in various unconnected dammed reservoirs, with little of it flowing to potential users.

Much of the day’s discussions centered not only on identifying data to collect and on ways to use this data, but also on how best to “unlock the data” that already exists.

In introducing the day’s theme, Hawgood said that in his view, UCSF, despite the depth and range of clinical and research data being collected, must develop ways to make much greater use of available data in the day-to-day workflow to improve research and patient care.

UCSF’s leaders in informatics can learn from what others have already done. “We want to take enough time to make sure that we’re not repeating other people’s mistakes,” Hawgood said.

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