A $12 million federal grant awarded in 2016 enabled City of Hope and collaborators to deploy a novel cloud-computing platform, making an immense amount of data from a historic 25-year study more accessible and user-friendly, according to a recently published study.
The ongoing California Teachers Study that first began in 1995 has already given researchers a bevy of data on how to better prevent and treat cancers, heart conditions and Alzheimer’s disease. In the past, this data was available only to a select few researchers. Opening the data to researchers worldwide and making it user-friendly will fast-track scientific discoveries that can improve the quality of life for people around the world, said James Lacey Jr., Ph.D., M.P.H., director of the Division of Health Analytics at City of Hope and one of the principal investigators of the study.
“We might be one of the first in the world to use secure cloud computing to build a data commons for an observational study,” Lacey said, adding that observational studies are expensive, so synthesizing data from disparate sources and making the information widely available is one way to ensure that federal grant dollars “get more mileage.”
“City of Hope continues to lead the health provider pack when it comes to collaborating with cutting-edge technology companies to deploy solutions that accelerate the translation of precision medicine into disease prevention and, potentially, therapies for patients,” Lacey said. Precision medicine is a personalized approach to disease prevention and treatment that takes into account each person’s specific genes, environment and lifestyle choices.
The study, published on Feb. 12 in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, provides a roadmap for other population health experts who want to broaden the reach and potential impact of their own research. The novel open cloud-computing platform City of Hope, San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) and University of California San Diego created for the California Teachers Study has simplified the process for understanding the incidence and distribution of disease. As a result, scientists can more quickly detect patterns and trends that could be translated into better health for individuals and the public.
Tracking Teachers' Health
The California Teachers Study was created in 1995 and enrolled 133,479 current and former public school teachers and administrators. They agreed to have their health and lifestyle tracked to help understand why teachers historically have higher rates of breast cancer. The study has since expanded to address other cancers including colon, pancreatic and bladder, as well as heart disease and even Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. More than 190 published studies have resulted from the data.
This is an example of how sharing is really caring, Lacey said. “Cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease are big problems that need the combined brainpower of the brightest minds around the world. Cloud computing directly helps cancer researchers store, share, analyze and use their data in new and more efficient ways. In short, our open website allows interested individuals to securely access, explore and generate discoveries with our California Teachers Study data.”
The new platform shortens the time needed to launch a research project from weeks to days, Lacey said. Previously, every research project had to be custom built, but now with the data commons framework, users can get started quickly, apply workflow templates for their projects and start analyzing the data right away.
A model program
"It is gratifying to see the grant for the California Teachers Study infrastructure successfully deliver on its promise of building a secure, cloud-based data commons platform for the cancer epidemiology research community,” said Sandeep Chandra, M.S., director of SDSC’s Sherlock Division and senior author of the study. “What is more exciting is the potential of how this data commons can serve as a model for other current, and future, observational studies through adoption of this framework, thereby reducing time and investment to deploy data management and analysis capabilities.”
Elena Martinez, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health at UC San Diego and one of the principal investigators of the study, added, “The newly implemented California Teachers Study infrastructure exemplifies what is possible when leveraging the knowledge and experience of population scientists who work alongside data scientists to move research into the 21st century. I am proud to be a part of an innovation leader that will serve as a model for future observational studies.”
University of California San Francisco, also contributed to the creation of the open platform. The study was supported by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health (CA199277).
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The overall cancer death rate has dropped by 27 percent over the last 25 years, according to data released last week by the American Cancer Society. City of Hope's James Lacey, Ph.D., M.P.H., breaks down the results.