NIH Awards Will Tackle Challenges of Big Data

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In an effort to better analyze and leverage a growing tsunami of mammoth biomedical data sets, the National Institutes of Health has awarded $32 million in grants as part of its Big Data to Knowledge initiative.

The awards will support the development of new approaches, software, tools, and training programs to improve access to data, including “novel analytics to mine large amounts of data,” according to NIH. Overall, the agency is projected to invest nearly $656 million through 2020 on the Big Data to Knowledge initiative to take advantage of the explosion of biomedical data.

The initial $32 million in funding will be used to establish 11 new Centers of Excellence for Big Data Computing nationwide that will each tackle specific data science challenges. The awards also will provide support for a consortium to cultivate a scientific community-based approach on the development of a data discovery index, and for data science training and workforce development.

“We’re moving to this big data world and there’s not a good way forward as to how to make this particularly useful in changing medicine,” Eric Topol, M.D., director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute (STSI), told Health Data Management. “We’re inundated with data and it’s going up exponentially. I applaud the NIH investment in this initiative to get the top sites in the country on this problem and to work together. This is a consortium. It’s not any one site on their own and it’s also an initiative to get experts from around the globe to crowd source methods and innovative means.”

According to Topol, less than 5 percent of big data in healthcare is actually being processed and analyzed. However, he said NIH’s Big Data to Knowledge program is “meant to provide a path to making that data imminently useful” and “is a terrific way to start to put a dent in that problem.”

Researchers at STSI and The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in San Diego will receive more than $4.4 million as part of a new Center for Excellence for Big Data Computing at the University of California-Los Angeles, one of 11 new computing centers announced Oct. 9 by NIH. The new center will leverage the Scripps Wellderly Genome Resource, a reference DNA dataset built by researchers at STSI from the whole genome sequences of participants in the Wellderly study. Because participants in that study lived at least 80 years without developing chronic diseases, it can serve as a control group for a wide range of genomic studies of most late-onset adult diseases.

“We have whole genome sequence for 600 healthy, elderly individuals,” said Topol, who is also professor of genomics and Gary and Mary West Endowed Chair of Innovative Medicine at TSRI and chief academic officer of Scripps Health. “Obviously that’s a lot of data and it can be used as a model for how we can interpret, visualize, report back, and deal with an exceptionally large data set of whole genome sequences.”

Information about the recipients of the new NIH grants can be found here.

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