America, 1900s: over half of the population is dying from infectious disease. 2014 and this figure is less than 3%. We engineered our way out of the threat from infectious agents. How? Jenner took an engineering approach and invented vaccines. Deaths from infectious disease that at the time had seemed inevitable were now being prevented. And this is how we are starting to look at ageing.
We are well accustomed with the concept of a technology revolution. The way that IT has advanced over the past century has transformed every aspect of modern society and preventive and regenerative medicine is the grounding for the same to occur in science – we are on the brink of a revolution in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of the diseases of ageing. The focus of a conference I recently attended in Oxford, Big Data in Medicine, is to look at methods of combining big data technologies with cutting edge biomedical research in a way that will accelerate the advance to more effective medicine.
If we don’t change the way we look at ageing, it is estimated that by 2018 nearly 80% of the NHS budget will be going on treating the old. Biological senescence (aka ageing) is a deteriorative process that increases the probability of age related diseases. As a society, we need to shift the balance from treatment of these diseases to their management and ultimately their prevention. Functional genomics is providing the tools that will enable this to happen. Techniques like RNAi and particularly CRISPR have huge potential and are starting to have resounding impacts on the area of gerontology.
With respect to preventive medicine and accompanying the tools of functional genomics, the potential big data set is enormous. Our genome, proteome and transcriptome provide us with a wealth of information that we are only just beginning to comprehend. There are a number of big health data initiatives springing up: UK BioBank, 100K Genome Project and the UK Phenome Centre to name a few. The task of these companies is to get intelligence from the data we have at the moment, and the massive amount of data we will be faced with in the near future. The aim: to accelerate preventive and regenerative medicine so that the diseases of ageing are no longer the inescapable consequences of growing old but are biological challenges with real solutions.
Using big data as a strategy for combatting ageing potentiates the aim of personalised treatment and prevention. This involves identifying and delivering the best clinical practice for each patient, improving outcomes and reducing overall costs. There is a move towards engaging the public as active and informed partners in optimising their own health. With this comes the idea of healthcare turning into a system that is patient centric and patient mediated – treatment starts at home. The data provided from patients themselves, data aggregated from social media, healthcare data – the sources are plenty and diverse.
And this is big data: big data that can be seen as one of the tracks on the highway towards treating ageing as a collection of diseases – a collection of diseases that we can treat effectively and, one day in the near future, prevent.