Big data is transforming biomedical research, National Institutes of Health director Francis S. Collins writes in a blog post announcing an initiative called Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K).
To illustrate his point, Collins points to the work of Atul Butte of Stanford University, a NIH-funded researcher looking among mountains of existing data to find new links among genes, diseases and traits. About 20 percent of the disease-trait links he's found were previously unknown.
Butte since has worked on whether these traits can be used to predict disease and found ways to make predictions in at least five areas.
"We are at a point in history where big data should not intimidate, but inspire us," Collins writes. "In some cases, rather than posing a question, designing experiments to answer that question and then gathering data, we already have the needed data in hand--we just have to devise creative ways to sift through this mountain of data and make sense of it."
While the research world tries to improve its use of data, the use of data analytics in clinical settings remains relatively immature, according to a recent HIMSS Analytics survey.
And health data may require more privacy protections beyond HIPAA and existing laws, according to a White House report on big data. It suggested the industry might need special data-use authorities to fully take advantage of the data's potential while still protecting patient privacy.
And experts argued at a Princeton University event that privacy efforts could "crash" big data before the industry figures it out.