Local heavyweights ally for health data research

By Dale Shoemaker / Assistant News Editor

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

The vision is simple, UPMC president and CEO Jeffrey Romoff said.

Pitt, Carnegie Mellon University and UPMC are teaming up to collect health data and improve health care  through the Pittsburgh Health Data Alliance.

The goal of the alliance, the three said, is to use health data to provide more specific care to patients. Data collected could include patient genomes and other individual data to diagnose singular patients and find patterns and trends among millions of patients. 

The three institutions — represented by Romoff, CMU President Subra Suresh and Pitt’s Chancellor Patrick Gallagher — announced their partnership at a press conference Monday at the Hillman Cancer Center within UPMC Shadyside. 

The alliance “will work to transform the explosion of health-related data into new technologies, products and services,” according to a release about the partnership. 

Already, Pitt and CMU have started two new research and development centers, the Center for Machine Learning and Health  and the Center for Commercial Applications of Healthcare Data . CMU will lead the CMLH project and Pitt will lead the CCA project. All three fund the alliance. 

Gallagher called the alliance “a partnership in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” and said it “establishes the conditions for unprecedented collaboration and cooperation. We will speed the process of taking technology out of the lab and into the hands of doctors.”

Each institution plans to invest $10-20 million each year for the next five or six years, Gallagher said, though Pitt will invest this amount “in addition to existing Pitt effort.”

“Over the course of five or six years, we’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said.

The alliance will use the money to fund big projects that will put Pittsburgh on the cutting edge of medical research, Gallagher said.

“This is not incremental improvement and a few apps — this is really about revolutionizing how we think about medicine and how we deliver medicine and how we do medical research,” Gallagher said. 

Since the steel industry collapsed in Pittsburgh, education and medicine — led by Pitt, CMU and UPMC — have become staples of the local economy. The alliance, Suresh said, will further those two industries.

Though medicine now has “many tools for collecting health information,” Suresh said, medical professionals do not have a way to organize and understand the data easily. The CMLH will build machines and develop systems, he said, “to organize health care data in a meaningful way and to allow us to assess this information, as quickly and as easily as we now use an app on our smart phones.”

When Mayor Bill Peduto stood to speak around 11:30 a.m. yesterday, he announced that he had taken 835 steps that morning, as tracked by his smart phone.

“Now multiply that by millions and just think what we can do,” he said. “This isn’t George Jetson. This is now. It’s here. This is ed-med 2.0 — this is ed-med on steroids.”

According to the release, CMU professor Eric Xing leads the CMLH, which will use data from electronic medical records, genomic sequencing, insurance records and wearable sensors to improve health care. The center will aim to analyze big health care data better, while still keeping patients’ personal information private. In cooperation with UPMC, the center will also aim to start new for-profit companies based off its research. 

While stressing the need to collect big health data, the alliance also said patient privacy is important. In some projects, the alliance will plan to collect as much health care data as possible, but Gallagher said other projects will focus on ramping up security to protect the data they collect. 

“To make this data useful, it has to be made available. The flip side of that same availability is that it can be misused. As we work with the alliance, we’ll bring to bear … a data platform that’s even more secure that allows unique patient information to be protected,” he said. 

Pitt professor Michael Becich will lead the CCA, which will research and invent new technology for individualized therapies and imaging systems, like fMRIs, for patients and doctors, the release said. Pitt’s center will aim to understand cancer and several lung disorders, genomics and imaging data and, like the CMLH, turn its research into for-profit companies. 

Arthur Levine, senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and dean of the school of medicine, said collecting big data is important for the future of health care and why the work of the alliance is important. He gave the drug Vioxx, marketed by Merck & Co., as an example. 

When Merck released Vioxx, which the FDA approved in 1999, doctors prescribed it to help treat pain associated with arthritis and menstruation. Merck, however, withdrew the medication in September 2004 after concerns of heart attack and stroke arose in a small number of patients. These concerns came to light, Levine said, because doctors reviewed more than 1.5 million patient records to find Vioxx as a common cause of heart attacks.

“That’s big data,” Levine said. “The more data we can accumulate, the more we can see patterns of illness that lead us to prevent and diagnose more effectively.” 

Innovation, more so than data collection, is the heart of the alliance, Romoff said. 

“I will be very disappointed if, five years from now, the projects looks anything like we just described,” Romoff said. “Because, if it does, we have not been as innovative, we have not been as creative as we need to be.”

Leave a comment.