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Regional Big Data Hubs Target Healthcare Research

November 3, 2015
by David Raths
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Priorities include new technologies for data-driven discovery, including in healthcare and local health disparities
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To accelerate the emerging field of big data, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has announced four grant awards totaling more than $5 million to establish four regional hubs for data science innovation, all of which will have some focus on healthcare.

The consortia are coordinated by data scientists at Columbia University (Northeast Hub), Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of North Carolina (South Hub), the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Midwest Hub) and the University of California, San Diego, UC Berkeley, and the University of Washington (West Hub). Covering all 50 states, the hubs include commitments from more than 250 organizations—from universities and cities to foundations and Fortune 500 corporations.

Building upon the National Big Data Research and Development Initiative announced in 2012, the awards are made through the Big Data Regional Innovation Hubs program, which creates a new framework for multi-sector collaborations among academia, industry and government. The “big data brain trust” assembled by the hubs will conceive, plan and support regional big data partnerships and activities to address regional challenges.

NSF anticipates awarding $10 million in grants for the next phase of the BD Hubs, called the Big Data Spokes, contingent upon the availability of funds. Each BD Spoke will focus on a specific BD Hub priority area and address one or more of three key issues: improving access to data, automating the data lifecycle and applying data science techniques to solve domain science problems or demonstrate societal impact.

Among the issues the BD Hubs have identified as priorities include new technologies for big data and data-driven discovery, including in healthcare and local health disparities. For instance, among other things, the Western Regional Big Data Hub will focus on precision medicine. One of six areas of focus of the Northeast Hub will be healthcare: Led by informatics researcher George Hripcsak, M.D., chairman of Columbia’s Department of Biomedical Informatics, the group will analyze patient and biological data at scale, and examine ways of harnessing data from social media, environmental sensors and other alternative sources to deliver individualized treatment.

As an example of the types of projects involved, Emory University in Atlanta put out a press release noting that it would be a health care research partner in the South Big Data Regional Innovation Hub. A number of existing Big Data projects at Emory, within four broad teams, are expected to collaborate with the South BD Hub. All are research partners within the NIH-supported Atlanta Clinical and Translational Science Institute (ACTSI), which includes Emory, Georgia Tech and Morehouse School of Medicine. Michael Zwick, Ph.D., assistant vice president for research in Emory’s Woodruff Health Sciences Center and assistant dean of research in Emory’s School of Medicine, will represent Emory on the South BD Hub Steering Committee.

“As the capacity of our research platforms increases, investigators using the high-throughput technologies available in the Emory Integrated Core Facilities increasingly find that computational services have become the rate-limiting factor,” said Zwick, in a prepared statement. “The innovative technologies proposed for the South BD Hub should further enhance ongoing research collaborations, lead to major advances in biology and biomedical research, and improve access and efficiency of health care delivery to our communities in the Southeast.”

Another example of the research involved is a project led by Andrew Post, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical informatics and interim director of the ACTSI’s Biomedical Informatics Programs. He is leading efforts to create coordinated access to and management of clinical data across Emory University and multiple medical centers in the Atlanta area and across the Southeast. A major component of the program is the i2b2 clinical data warehousing system at Emory and Morehouse School of Medicine. Post also leads ACTSI’s efforts in the NIH-supported Accrual to Clinical Trials network, including more than 21 academic medical centers.