How big data is being used to tackle chronic disease in Scotland

Scotland is leading the way within the field of precision medicine, but how is big data helping tackle chronic disease?
Picture: Creative CommonsPicture: Creative Commons
Picture: Creative Commons

From statins to anti-depressants, oncology and asthma, the vast amount of medical data available in Scotland is being used to research precision medicine in order to specifically target patient’s genetic makeup rather than produce pharmaceutical drugs for the entire population.

With companies such as the Stratified Medicine Scotland Innovation Centre (SMS-IC) who focus on Scotland’s place in Precision Medicine, as well as top medical universities such as Glasgow University and its research within the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, Scotland hopes to be the leading voice in using big data to influence the future of medical research.

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Why is Scotland so successful in this field?

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Dr Diane Harbison, CEO, Stratified Medicine Scotland Innovation Centre (SMS-IC) based at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow explains: “The benefits we have in Scotland are we are a relatively small nation of about 5.5 million people, we have a stable population who tend not to leave and we have fantastic electronic health records. What that means is, when you are born you’re given a unique patient identity number known as the CHI number and that stays with you for the whole of your life so any touch point that you have with health care providers or doctors or anything like that, is associated with that number. All your medical records, all your prescribing data, all your imaging data are all associated with this number. So in terms of the amount of data that is available to look at for chronic health conditions, we have some of the best health semantics in the world in Scotland.”

What is big data?

Is the case of medical research, big data is the huge amount of medical information, which is being used to focus and target treatment of chronic diseases.

“A lot of the projects that we are working on, both in terms of prevention and developing new treatments and understanding of diseases, these days, are all working with big data” says Dr Carol K. Clugston, Chief Operating Officer /Director of Professional Services at Glasgow University. “One of the real advantages of Scotland is our NHS and the fact that we have such great data sets available. This is one of our USP’s and definitely one of the things putting Scotland at the forefront of, not just precision medicine but how to tackle chronic diseases.”

Clinical trials…without participants

The big data available in Scotland has been used for historical research trials to look at the effectiveness of common drugs, as Dr Clugston explains. “An example of this is clinical trials on statins. We have looked back over the last 20 years to see what has happened to patients who have been on statins and, because the data sets are so powerful, we can see what medications people have been on, how many times they have been to see their GP, we know whether or not they have had to go into hospital and what that was for, we even have prescription records to see what prescriptions they have been cashing in. All these data sets can be analysed in a very anonymous way so it is all completely safe and secure. Basically we can do a clinical trial without recruiting patients into the trial as all the data is there anyway.”

What does the future hold?

From an individual point of view, the information we are collecting from apps such as pedometers or blood pressure monitors could be the start of collating our own health data. Dr Clugston says: “The future is probably going to be based around ‘how can we use the data that individuals are collecting to inform population health?’ If you can imagine that all that data could effectively become part of your health record, which could also be used for population studies in the same way we can look at the effects of statins – looking at the data over a period of years and understanding if they’ve had an effect – imagine if you could add to that the data that people can collect from their apps.”

For Diane Harbison, the future is one in which big pharmaceutical and biotech companies create more tailored medicines. “What we are aiming to do now is to influence the pharmaceutical industry to stop producing so called ‘blockbuster drugs’ but to produce much more targeted therapeutics that work on the particular genetic makeup of the person rather than the whole population, because we know that doesn’t work.”