The power of big data must be harnessed for medical progress

Volume 539 Number 7630 pp467-602 24 November 2016

The power of big data must be harnessed for medical progress
But grave challenges remain before the promise of individually tailored medicine becomes reality.
There is art in ‘big data’ — in the poetic claims that it competes in volume with all the stars in the firmament. And in the seductive potential of its exponential, uncontrolled, ungraspable growth to improve our lives: by allowing medical treatments to be developed and approved more quickly — and, ultimately, truly personal medicine.
But at a workshop held in London by the European Medicines Agency earlier this month, just how much science has to happen to make this beautiful future a reality was apparent to all. Patient groups and research scientists attended, alongside computational heavyweights from IBM Watson Health and Google Cloud Platform. Together, they tackled chewy questions to which there are few answers.
How many data are ‘enough’ to reliably predict clinical effect? Which data sets can be useful? How can they be managed? What’s the best way to win the confidence of public and regulators? And, crucially, is academia training enough mathematicians and medical-data scientists, who will have to develop and harness all this new potential? The last of these questions at least has a clear answer: no…