Life-Saving Information TechnologyBy Aaron Lazenby
Oracle joins Dana-Farber's fight against cancer.
Consolidating disparate data sets. Protecting information security. Preserving end-user privacy. Simplifying and automating business processes. All of these are important goals in IT management. But intelligent IT management also has the opportunity to save lives.
Dr. John Quackenbush, of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, is advocating for a transformation of medical research that follows suit. One of the world's leading facilities for cancer research and treatment, Dana-Farber treats more than 185,000 patients every year and is involved in roughly 200 clinical trials. A commitment to advancing cancer research has led administrators to embrace information technology as a powerful cancer-fighting tool.
"I've said this a million times: the life sciences are evolving into information sciences," Quackenbush says.
To this end, Quackenbush's team is pursuing the ambitious goal of capturing the massive amounts of clinical data collected by doctors and connecting it with existing systems that track the variables that impact the development of cancer. This combined data set could then be filtered and analyzed to develop new insights about cancer therapy, including the effectiveness of treatment protocols, the impact of drug interactions, and the genetic predispositions of patients. Ultimately such findings could change the recommendations physicians make about a patient's condition—and improve the chances for survival.
"Eventually, we have to be in a position to take all this research information we're generating, combine it with other information, and give it back to healthcare providers in such a way that they can really understand what the data means and that they can use it effectively to guide patient treatment," says Quackenbush. "Five years from now, I think the big question is going to be, 'How do we best manage this information and present it to the clinician so he or she can understand it?'"
Better Data Improves Diagnosis and Treatment
Oracle software and services are playing a significant role in Quackenbush's mission. The company awarded Dana-Farber a US$1 million Commitment Grant that allows the two industry leaders to join forces in an effort to merge genomic information with clinical data as a step toward improving cancer diagnosis and individualizing treatment for patients.
Oracle consultants worked with Quackenbush to devise a method for addressing the complicated security and privacy issues that govern patient data. The team decided to create a data warehouse that is compliant with the privacy standards created by the Health Level 7 consortium on patient data protection. This way, Quackenbush's team can use Business Process Execution Language (BPEL) tools to load patient data into the industry-standard database, where data privacy is rigorously guarded.
BPEL can also facilitate the transport of data from public domain databases that track the variations in the human genome sequences, monitor information about genes and drug interactions, and associate the occurrence of genes with other diseases. This data, combined with the collection of protected patient data, gives a comprehensive view of the variables at play in cancer development.
Quackenbush sees the Dana-Farber/Oracle partnership as the cornerstone of a new Center for Computational Cancer Biology being created at Dana-Farber. "What we're seeing more and more is that in the twenty-first century, particularly with biotechnology, there are three pillars. There's theory, there's experiment, and there's computation—and at the core of computation is information management," he says. "So if we think about the next generation of cancer research, of cancer care, of healthcare, information management is really going to be one of the pillars supporting progress and development."
Aaron Lazenby is an editorial director with Oracle Publishing.