Can UK medical bioinformatics funding bridge the big data gap?

By Philippa Brice

10 February 2014


The UK Medical Research Council (MRC) has announced £32 million funding to support medical bioinformatics in the UK.

The investment follows on from the £20 million funding announced last year to establish the Farr Institute, the UK’s first health informatics research institute, the Farr Institute, as part of an overall £90 million spending by the MRC to address the ‘big data’ challenges for medical research.

The funding, awarded to five MRC academic research groups, is intended to ‘support the safe use of biological and patient data for medical research across all diseases’, building capacity including infrastructure and skills, and developing new ways of interrogating complex biological data and health records. 

Announcing the new round of funding, UK Universities and Science Minister David Willets said that it would help build medical research capability, a point reiterated by MRC Chief Executive Professor John Savill who commented: ”The aim is to strengthen the UK’s capacity to analyse biomedical data in secure environments so that patients and participants can be reassured that their personal data are safe and may be used to benefit to the whole UK population”. 

This last statement is timely, given the current furore over plans for NHS England to roll out a huge anonymised medical database of all NHS patients, unless they opt out of participation. Prominent clinical and research leaders have underlined the importance of this initiative to underpin future improvements in healthcare, but privacy concerns have inevitably been raised following news that commercial access to the database might be permitted (see BBC news). The same issue is perhaps the most commonly cited public concern over the 100,000 Genomes Project

This attitude is exasperating to many; for example, Tim Kelsey, NHS England's national director for patients and information has said: "No one who uses this data will know who you are" (see BBC news) whilst Clare Gerada, until recently chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners observed: “Some people are making this out to be Big Brother, yet we think nothing of leaving a trail of data behind every time we shop in Tesco or buy something online” (see FT report). 

Since public acceptability is an important factor in underlining the success of biomedical advances, getting the message across about not only the value for health but also the steps being taken to safeguard patients is crucial, otherwise there the expected big data will not materialise, or at any rate be delayed. 

However, assuming that the battle for public opinion will be won then it will become increasingly important to be able to interrogate the masses of interconnected biomedical, clinical and genomic data that new initiatives will generate, to further research and improve medical practice. Investment in bioinformatics capacity is therefore vital. 

This was underlined in the 2011 PHG Foundation report on clinical whole-genome sequencing, Next Steps in the Sequence, although in the specific context of genomics a new layer of complexity is added on top of medical research needs; bioinformatics expertise will be needed to analyse genomic data and also provide clinicians with meaningful interpretation to inform patient care.  

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