April 13, 2018

Biomedical Informatics Expert Discusses Uses of Big Data at Rockefeller Distinguished Lecture

April 13, 2018 | Atul Butte, M.D., Ph.D., spoke to a packed house Wednesday, April 4, in the Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute as part of the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Distinguished Lecture series.

Butte, a leading voice in biomedical informatics, presented “Translating a Trillion Points of Data into Therapies, Diagnostics and New Insights into Disease,” a look at the various uses for open big data in the area of precision medicine.

Atul Butte, M.D., Ph.D., displays a map that shows data on aging and deaths in California.

Atul Butte, M.D., Ph.D., displays a map that shows data on aging and deaths in California.

Throughout the talk, Butte encouraged academics to be more entrepreneurial in their thinking.

“In my lab, we have a saying that if you want to change the world, you can’t just keep writing papers about it,” said Butte. “If you have discovered something, then it is up to you to file intellectual property, and if no one licenses that, it is up to you to start the company. That is just the responsibility. Otherwise, how are patients going to benefit?”

A pediatrician by training, Butte is the inaugural director of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, and he holds the Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg distinguished professorship. He is also the executive director for clinical informatics across the six University of California medical schools and medical centers.

He was the founder of three investor-backed data-driven companies: Personalis, providing medical genome sequencing services; Carmenta (acquired by Progenity), discovering diagnostics for pregnancy complications; and NuMedii, finding new uses for drugs through open molecular data.

D. Micah Hester, Ph.D., chair of the UAMS committee that planned the event, thanks everyone involved in putting on the lecture before showing a video of Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller's life.

D. Micah Hester, Ph.D., chair of the UAMS committee that planned the event, thanks everyone involved in putting on the lecture before showing a video of Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller’s life.

D. Micah Hester, Ph.D., chair of the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Distinguished Lecture Committee, which planned the event, started the noon lecture by presenting a video that shared more about the life of former Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller.

The Winthrop P. Rockefeller Distinguished Lectures were established in 1972 and endowed by friends of the former governor. The endowment that funds the lecture program allows five universities in the University of Arkansas System to offer free public lectures that communicate ideas to stimulate public discussion, intellectual debate and cultural advancement.

Interim Chancellor Stephanie Gardner, Pharm.D., Ed.D., then introduced Butte.

“As a pharmacist by training, I’m fascinated by how Dr. Butte and his team have used big data to find new uses for existing drugs, including therapies for autoimmune diseases and cancer, and I’m really looking forward to hearing his talk today.”

Butte called the current era a “data deluge,” citing as an example NASA’s announcement that by the end of the decade, all of its telescopes might produce an exabyte of data each day.

He noted that NASA already produces more pictures of the sky than the world’s astronomers can examine, a reason that Galaxy Zoo exists to allow citizen scientists to help classify that data.

The hard part for scientists now is figuring out what questions to ask, and how to use the data that already exists to answer those important questions, he said.

Laura James, M.D., director of the Translational Research Institute and associate vice chancellor for clinical and translational research, asks Butte a question at the end of his presentation.

Laura James, M.D., director of the Translational Research Institute and associate vice chancellor for clinical and translational research, asks Butte a question at the end of his presentation.

“Probably someone has studied your disease of interest over the past 15 years, and all of that data is just sitting there, waiting for you,” he said, noting that the NIH typically requires data be shared from research it funds.

Butte said the reason why many scientists don’t use all of the data is because we’ve been conditioned that if something is free and on the internet, it must be valueless.

“This is the best value you can imagine — raw data from the best scientists,” he said. “I think open data like this is the most amazing export from the Western world.

“We give this data out, and we’re not training enough people to use it.”

Such open data holds great promise in the developing precision medicine, he said.

“I love the fact that all of these researchers are following the rules. I love the fact that they’re depositing their data into the public repositories,” he said, adding that he then examines and scrutinizes that data until he finds commonalities.

“I don’t trust a single one of them. But I trust what I get in common.”

Butte discussed how he and the graduate students in his lab took their findings on various diseases and formed companies. Those startups then raised private funds, which he called “the new way science is going to survive,” especially given how difficult it is to get new NIH funding.

Butte spoke to a full house at the Rockefeller Distinguished Lecture.

Butte spoke to a full house at the Rockefeller Distinguished Lecture.

Big data could be especially valuable in pharmacology, he said, noting that according to Matthew Herper of Forbes, the largest pharmaceutical companies spend between $4-12 billion to develop a drug.

“That is simply not sustainable,” adding that there also aren’t enough pharmaceutical and biotech companies to produce all of the drugs that are needed for precision medicine — even if those companies had a 100 percent success rate.

“We must get to a more efficient way to develop drugs, and it is going to come down to those of us in academia to do this.”

Butte summed up his presentation with a few examples of what big data in biomedicine is doing — predicting the disease before it strikes; explaining the rare disease that defies experts; finding drugs for diseases lacking attention; making sure we do the right thing for patients; and finally offering an amazing platform for biomedical innovation.

But in the end, big data in biomedicine is hope, Butte said.

During the day, Butte spent time in discussion with UAMS students and faculty across the campus, as well as at Arkansas Children’s Hospital.