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Can social data lead to cure for cancer?

Posted at 7:12 PM, Mar 02, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-03 13:03:13-05
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - We are in the era of big data.  In healthcare, it just might lead to a cure for cancer or ease chronic conditions sooner than anyone could have ever predicted.
The University of Arizona is part of a nationwide quest to unlock the potential of big data and how smart phones and social media will play a big role.
Did you know that Twitter can help predict emergency room visits?
University of Arizona researchers are examining tweets by chronic asthma sufferers to predict, with 75 percent accuracy, the number of emergency room visits on any given day.
Those tweets are analyzed alongside data. 
Dr. Elizabeth Calhoun says big data can be derived from social media, genetics, medical records, insurance records, marketing, the environment and even the census.
"Compiling that all together can provide a huge opportunity to predict epidemics, to improve health on an individual level, and a community level, and a population level."
Meaning data will be examined alongside thousands of others to pick up patterns that highlight warning signs or threats.
Remember Angelina Jolie's breast cancer scare? Dr. Yves Lussier says big data wouldn't be needed in her case.
"Her disease is one of those diseases that are highly predictable with a single gene defect -- called bracki one breast cancer," said Lussier.
But he says other diseases are far more complex.
A UA graduate student wrote this complicated code to analyze 25,000 genes, from breast cancer patients, that have more than 100 million combinations.
"And every one of these dots represents a patient so we've taken all that big data and we've gone down to three variables we're looking at," said Grant Schissler.
"The purple dots survived disease free for more than four years. Unfortunately, the teal dots here died from the disease in less than two and a half years. And we're trying to understand the genetics behind exactly why they had good or poor prognosis."
The drive now is to understand as a much as possible about a patient.
"That's where smart phones come into play. We use apps to measure every mile we walk and every calorie we take in. And devices such as this Fitbit, track your progress. And in the near future, you could upload the data to your doctor to be used as a diagnostic tool."
All that data could lead to precision treatments for patients.
It's about getting the right service to the right person at the right time to prevent patients from returning to hospitals.
"It's accelerating very fast. You'll see more of these predictions in the coming 6 months to one year."
In July, Dr. Calhoun says President Obama launched a Precision Medicine Cohort to recruit 1 million participants nationwide including and here in Tucson.
That effort starts in July.
"It's really now leveraging big data and trying to figure out what has impacted the health of populations," said Calhoun.
It's time to move science to the next level.