Atul Butte, MD, PhD
In the old days, not too long ago, doctors’ offices were full of paper records, which filled shelf after shelf. This cumbersome form of keeping track of patients was effective in its own way, but with the rise of modern medicine and the power of computing, there is a need to move beyond. Atul Butte, MD, PhD, believes in the growing power of computing to bring about the next stage of precision medicine, a world where a doctor can give you not only standard advice not to smoke or overeat, but can also tell you, for example, that based on a scan of your entire personal genome, you had better stay away from all forms of pesticides, as you are statistically more likely to develop cancer from this kind of exposure.
Butte, the keynote speaker at this year’s CFSTM Chemotherapy Foundation Symposium: Innovative Cancer Therapy for Tomorrow®
, held at the Marriott Marquis in New York City November 9-11, heads the Institute for Computational Health Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, which has taken on the role of harnessing the power of “big data” to bring about new cures for patients. He has spoken to numerous audiences about the exponentially increasing power of computing to capture more and more data, as well as the phenomenal miniaturization of chips and computers that recently delivered a genome sequencer that can fit in the palm of your hand. However, he also emphasizes that it is the job of humans to interpret that data and turn it into something useful and productive for mankind. Butte’s talk is entitled, “Translating a Million Points of Data Into Therapies, Diagnostics, and New Insights Into Disease.”
Butte, a noted expert in pediatrics and medical informatics, also serves as executive director of clinical informatics for UC Health Sciences and Services, which is working to build a data warehousing and analytics platform that can function as a tool for researchers to make use of the huge amount of clinical data coming from the five medical centers in the University of California system. Better understanding of disease and better therapeutic approaches to handling disease are the goals.
Data aggregation is not new, but it is a growing phenomenon, and the opportunities in this field are so vast that a plethora of new companies are springing up to capitalize on the services and research aspects of clinical data, Butte said. These developments are breaking down the barriers to information flow and are making it possible to learn and achieve more than ever before, he said. “Pharma companies, payers, and electronic health records are sources of data, but each of these are siloed right now. A few companies have been visionary, because they see the potential for aggregating this sort of data—integrating it. But I think more and more data on patients is going to be generated electronically. Medical practice is becoming a digital field, instead of pen to paper like in the old days.”
Butte himself is an entrepreneur, having founded two biotechnology companies, Personalis and NuMedii. Personalis provides DNA sequencing and human exome and genome testing for researchers and clinicians. NuMedii uses proprietary methods developed by Butte at his Stanford University laboratory to mine big data for drug candidates and biomarkers likely to prove helpful in combatting disease.
These companies have a lot of competition. Butte himself noted that 90 different companies have formed recently to leverage the power of machine learning and artificial intelligence in medicine. These are heavily concentrated in Boston, Pittsburgh, and the San Francisco Bay Area. In tandem with the rise of these companies, it has become much cheaper to contract for trials and other forms of pre-clinical testing. Butte believes these services vastly improve options for pharma companies looking for validation of their drug candidates while also opening the door to less-well-funded concerns in need of confirmatory trials.
“These contract research organizations are all over the world, and there are now websites that aggregate these companies: Assay Depot, Science Exchange. There are many others. So, you could learn how to do all of this testing for yourself or you could find a company that might be able to do the work for you. The business world has been outsourcing for a long time, and now you can imagine this process also happening in drug discovery—in biomedicine, as well,” he said.