How Big Data is Tackling The Ethics Of Medical Research

POSTED BY   Sarah Etling
11th December 2017
How Big Data is Tackling The Ethics Of Medical Research | TDMB Tech

There are so many ways that technology is helping to advance the medical industry. Big Data is the latest technology to be in the spotlight for changing the future of medical research and treatment.

Precision medicine is advancing at huge speeds, with a great deal of money and research being put into this field. Each human has their own genetic makeup and when it comes to diseases such as asthma, cancer or diabetes, there is often a gene mutation or environmental issue causing the disease. As it stands now, there is a generic set of treatments that are given to patients, often resulting in a trial and error type system, until a treatment or dosage is found that works for that individual. This not only wastes time in getting the right treatment but also puts the patients through various therapies often with ill effects, without knowing of their efficacy.

Companies like Stratfield Medicine Scotland Innovation Centre, who focus on precision medicine, are using big data to change the way we conduct medical research and treatment. Big data means a vast amount of medical information is stored, from previous medical trials, pharmaceutical company research, lab tests, current patient prescriptions and biobanking, all compiled together. This data can then be used to see how a disease progresses over time according to particular demographics such as gender, age, family history, the likelihood of developing other conditions, and which treatments responded best. Researchers are hoping that by using this databank, and having the expertise to analyse the success of medication in relation to particular demographics, that they can create a more tailored pathway for treatments for common diseases instead of the generic ‘blockbuster’ drugs that are currently used for the whole population, that so often don’t work.

The big data available at this centre in Scotland uses access to historical research trials to look at the long-term effectiveness of common drugs, such as statins for high cholesterol. Being able to access this data means that they could look over the past 20 years to see what happened to patients who have taken statins for a prolonged period of time, such as what medications they are taking now, how many visits they have had to their GP over the years, whether or not they have ever been admitted to hospital and what for. Even to the extent of accessing records of prescriptions they were given but didn’t cash in.

This might all seem a bit ‘big brother’ with researchers having access to every ailment or medication you have ever had, however, the data sets are all stored anonymously and are extremely safe and secure. The research centre can then conduct clinical trials by looking for patterns in this large-scale big data, without recruiting human patients and testing them over time, as all the historical data they need is in there.  

Medical research, whilst necessary, life-saving and groundbreaking, has always come with a side of ethical concern. From animal cruelty to detrimental side effects in human trials, there has been no other option but to test medications on live subjects over a period of time, evaluating the outcome, and generalising it to the population. By being able to access, research and evaluate medical treatments in one place from a databank, it could be the key to tackling chronic diseases with precision medicine, without the need for the involvement of live studies.

Whilst it doesn’t solve the ethical issue entirely, with biobanking and accessible medical records still causing some unease in the industry, if it means a future of no animal or human medical trials, and also means a better success rate with medication and treatments, all because of a vast amount of stored big data, then it seems like progress to me.



How Big Data is Tackling The Ethics Of Medical Research

Sarah Etling

Sarah Elting is Head of Marketing at TDMB. Following a degree in Marketing, she headed to Italy to start up a property consultancy. On her return to colder climates, she embarked on a marketing and creative journey that over the course of 12 years evolved from launching paint collections to heading up the marketing of a successful PropTech start-up and becoming CIM qualified. Sarah now writes about all aspects of strategic marketing and technology and continues to be interested in Property.

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