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Reflections on Dr Data

Nikita Filippov

7th September 2017


Written by Nikita Filippov who is studying for an MSc in Data Science at Heriot-Watt University. He is currently undertaking an internship at HEINEKEN, where he is investigating the impact of promotions. He went to see the Cancer Innovation Challenge's Dr Data: The Answer to Cancer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival so we asked him to give us his thoughts on the show!

Since starting the internship I have been looking beyond my task at hand to see what other developments are happening in the field. The Dr. Data talk provided exciting insight into the developments and challenges of personalised cancer treatment.

Professors Aileen Keel and Dave Robertson are both involved in the Cancer Innovation Challenge, a project encouraging open innovation to improve cancer care in Scotland. Professor Aileen is also the director of the Innovatve Healthcare Delivery Programme (IHDP) which aims to leverage the rich data from the NHS and other sources to deliver value to both patients and the NHS. In particular, they talked about how personalised medicine can be utilised for the improvement of cancer treatments and the challenges associated with that task, specifically data protection and technical challenges.

Personally I find this fascinating, as cancer is something that has affected people close to me and many others, and if there is potential to make better use of the data for the good of the people, then why not right? The information is already there, all that needs to be done is for it to be assembled, interpreted and analysed, which is not an easy feat.

Apart from the witty humour of the speakers, an interesting statistic has been highlighted. The incidence of cancer in Scotland is higher than that in the UK or EU, which is quite worrying. However the trends showed that all three statistics are in decline. This means people are being diagnosed with cancer less frequently overall, however the difference in the trends remains. Data is potentially the answer to the question that springs to mind; why is Scotland a higher risk group?

Professor Aileen explained that there are quite a few new cancer drugs being developed, however they are by no means generic, meaning that they will not work on the vast majority of patients. This is where the data comes in allowing to sort the patients into similar groups, within which it is possible to predict the outcome of using a particular drug. This is especially helpful, as the new drugs frequently have large costs attached as pharmaceutical companies aim to recover their investment into research.

The Cancer Innovation Challenge project faces quite a few challenges, both from a data protection and a technical perspective. Patient data needs to be private, but also the data must be available to professionals for analysis. One challenge in particular is mining insight from rich text data, which would have to be addressed to be able to tap into all the information available in the NHS. When you go to the doctor and explain your issue, the doctor (hopefully) will leave some remarks on your file, however it is not a trivial task for a computer to process the meaning behind those words. As Professor Dave pointed out, patient information in the hands of private companies may not be to the advantage of the average person. It could result in medical insurance being denied to people in high risk groups, which is almost counter to the whole purpose of medical insurance. This highlights the level of caution that is needed to be taken to ensure that patient data doesn’t end up in the wrong hands.

I feel hopeful that there are people who have the interest of the public at heart, when executing a project such as the Cancer Innovation Challenge and look forward to the developments that will surely result from this in the near future. 

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