UPMC unlocks public health data to battle deadly diseases

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center have digitized 125 years' worth of weekly surveillance reports for reportable diseases in the U.S., recently outlining their research in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The project aims to help scientists and public health officials eliminate deadly diseases, according to an announcement from UPMC. All of the data now can be accessed at the project's website.

"Analyzing historical epidemiological data can reveal patterns that help us understand how infectious diseases spread and what interventions have been most effective," said Irene Eckstrand, Ph.D., of the National Institutes of Health, which partially funded the research. "This new work shows the value of using computational methods to study historical data--in this case, to show the impact of vaccination in reducing the burden of infectious diseases over the past century."

The researchers obtained approximately 6,500 tables of disease surveillance tables published between 1888 and 2013 in various historical reports, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report--previously only in paper format--and digitized them. According to the announcement, a total of 56 diseases were reported for at least some period of time during the 125-year time span, with no single disease reported continuously.   

"Historical records are a precious yet undervalued resource," Donald S. Burke, M.D., Pitt Public Health dean, said, according to the announcement. "By 'rescuing' these historical disease data and combining them into a single, open-access, computable system, we now can better understand the devastating impact of epidemic diseases, and the remarkable value of vaccines in preventing illness and death."

This past summer, UPMC researchers were able to electronically integrate clinical and genomic information on 140 breast cancer patients through use of a data warehouse.

"The integration of data, which is the goal of the enterprise data warehouse, allows us to ask questions that we just simply couldn't ask before," Adrian Lee, a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology and director of the Women's Cancer Research Center, said of that endeavor.

In related news, a consortium of universities and hospital systems in South Carolina have started using a database containing the medical information of millions of patients across the state with the intent of developing better, more cost-effective treatment plans.

The $15 million database--dubbed the Clinical Data Warehouse--is housed at Clemson University and operated by Health Sciences South Carolina in Columbia.

To learn more:
- see the results in NEJM
- read the announcement from UPMC
- see the Tycho project website

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