Harnessing big data is essential for future of medicine, society

Michael Jensen

For most of us, information technology is a surprisingly mundane feature of our lives. We often take these ubiquitous technologies for granted, forgetting how revolutionary they truly are. Big data, a term referring to the unprecedented quantity and complexity of data that IT generates, is a relatively new phenomenon and popular area of research. Successfully applying insights gained from big data to scientific fields, such as genomics could change medicine — and our lives — for the better.

The world’s “digital universe” currently contains about 4.4 trillion gigabytes of data — with that number projected to reach 44 trillion in 2020. Much of this new data will come from sequenced human genomes, which are complete sets of human DNA, consisting of billions of base pairs. Scientists predict up to 1 billion people will have their genomes sequenced by 2025, which will generate several exabytes of data per year. To put those numbers in perspective, Google was recently estimated to hold a mere 10–15 exabytes in its servers.

It’s easy to see how storing, organizing and interpreting such vast sets of data is a daunting task. By many measures, our ability to generate data is outpacing our ability to manage it.

Hans Hofmann, director of UT’s Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics and a professor of integrative biology, said he believes big data will become increasingly important for society.

“While it is becoming increasingly common and affordable to produce ‘big data’ in many domains, the analysis and interpretation of such large amounts of data remains woefully inadequate,” Hofmann said in an email.  “We need to train students to be versed in data-intensive approaches.”

For students with aspirations of medical or graduate school, data sciences and information technology could have an especially large impact on their futures. Mariah Paschalis, cellular and molecular biology senior, said she believes big data might lead to medical breakthroughs.

“I think that the technological advances in compiling and analyzing genetic info of cancer patients will lead to more discoveries made in treating and hopefully curing cancer,” Paschalis said. “We’re already sequencing cancer patients to identify certain genetic markers specific to different kinds and causes of cancer, and I think that will only keep improving.”

The possible applications of big data extend far beyond genomics and medicine. The most pressing issues of the future will be complex and often interconnected, requiring robust data and sophisticated analysis. From addressing climate change to curing cancer, harnessing today’s wired world contains the promise of a smarter, healthier and brighter tomorrow.

Jensen is a neuroscience junior from Houston. Follow him on Twitter @michaeltangible.