September 11, 2022

Leveraging past data for future health

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Health care providers have long maintained meticulous records of patients’ medical history to ensure a holistic picture of their specific care needs.

The personalized record obviously works to a patient’s benefit, but when viewed in the context of a large database of patient records, researchers and clinicians can observe different types of health trends. This information can have significant implications for new research and clinical care.

That’s why several initiatives within the UW Carbone Cancer Center plan to better harness the troves of existing health data, as well as find new opportunities to expand and explore specific health needs and disparities.

“Informatics, to me, is a branch of science that enables the collection and integration of various kinds of data to generate actionable insights that can be used to improve human health and healthcare,” said Jomol Mathew, Associate Director of Informatics for UW Carbone and Associate Dean for Informatics and Information Technology for the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

These initiatives are supported in part by funds raised by Garding Against Cancer, founded in 2016 by University of Wisconsin men’s basketball head coach Greg Gard and his wife, Michelle. Garding Against Cancer is a significant partner for UW Carbone and has raised more than $6.5 million for cancer research and cancer-related services across Wisconsin.

At UW Carbone, Mathew is working on building a Cancer Data Commons to bring together clinical, genomic, social, environmental, and other datasets to help identify additional areas of research need. Advances in technology and database management makes it easier to collate, navigate and analyze these records.

“We are implementing tools now to make that data easily visualizable by researchers,” Mathew said. “At the end of the day, you have to be able to look at the data and relate to it in order to effectively analyze it, so that’s something we are working on.”

Mathew explains the importance of using patient data through the example of researching how drugs that are already on the market can be used for a new beneficial purpose.

“For example, data from Electronic Health Records enables researchers with appropriate authorizations to look at all of the drugs a patient has received, and see if there is any impact on cancer progression or survival,” Mathew said. “This kind of analysis can potentially identify a drug that is used for another indication, to be beneficial in cancer treatment.”

Another benefit is when studying rare cancers. One facility may not see enough patients with this disease, but combining data from additional cancer centers gives a substantial base for drawing reliable conclusions.

Mathew is also helping to develop and translate data-driven precision medicine strategies, including work with the Precision Medicine Molecular Tumor Board. The board is a statewide initiative of UW Carbone, where a panel of experts review a patient’s genomic data and suggest targeted therapies and clinical trials that could benefit the patient. The genomic data can also be used by researchers for studying specific cancer subtypes.

Mathew also sees great value in finding ways to provide simplified data back to the patients for their own consideration and decision-making.

“I really hope that our return of results approaches will help increase patients’ interest and participation in research,” she said. “That probably is very important for cancer patients. Sometimes in one’s treatment paradigm, the best choice may be newly-emerging clinical trials.”