Growing mountains of data extracted by rapidly evolving health technologies have created a critical need for the masses of information to be interpreted. Now, a new research centre at James Cook University will harness the deluge to deliver clinical insights.
 
The Centre for Tropical Bioinformatics and Molecular Biology (CTBMB), which launched on October 29, will take the influx of data generated in biological science to help make important discoveries and develop revolutionary techniques.
 
The data flood, substantial leaps forward in computing power, and an increase in access to health-related data sets have presented scientists with unprecedented opportunities to unearth revelations.
 
Focused on the tropics, the CTBMB will probe four research themes, with the health and disease branch aimed at expanding knowledge of infectious and chronic diseases such as tuberculosis, dengue and diabetes.
 
“The health care system is already largely data-driven and decisions are being made based on data available. The difference is the scale of data being generated, such as whole-body imaging data or the DNA sequence information from patients,” CTBMB theme leader for Health and Disease in the Tropics Dr Ashley Waardenberg said.
 
“The current challenge is presenting these data sets in a meaningful way to help medical practitioners treat patients with the appropriate therapies.”
 
The CTBMB will gather the data generated by molecular techniques and analyse, visualise and interpret data sets involving thousands of genes, genomic variants or micro-organisms.
 
The efforts will supercharge the use of personalised medicine and reveal the underlying genetic causes of undiagnosed diseases.
 
With 50 per cent of the world’s population expected to live in the tropics by 2050, insights into tropical diseases aim to save lives.
 
“In the tropics, where we work, rapid diagnosis of blood pathogens can be the difference between life and death. Using new technologies to obtain data about the populations of foreign organisms in patient blood has huge potential to change the way we diagnose and effectively treat patients,” Dr Waardenberg said.
 
Dengue alone is ranked by the World Health Organisation as the most critical mosquito-borne viral disease in the world and is spreading quickly, with a 30-fold increase in global incidence over the past 50 years. 
 
More than 40 per cent of the world’s population in more than 100 countries are at risk of infection, and each year an estimated 390 million dengue cases occur globally. Of these, 500,000 infections develop into dengue haemorrhagic fever, a more severe form of the disease, that causes up to 25,000 deaths annually worldwide.
 
According to CTBMB co-director Dr Matt Field, the aim is to connect researchers and clinicians and boost the use of patient data to improve health outcomes.
 
“Researchers able to work with large complex patient data sets need to increasingly work with clinicians to better understand what aspect of the data is clinically relevant,” Dr Field said.
 
“We will work closely with groups like the newly formed Tropical Australian Academic Health Centre, which aims to embed research into health care delivery.”
 
The increasing digitisation of patient records and data developments are creating a need for healthcare providers to keep up with swiftly evolving technologies, research and practice. 
 
“It can be a challenge. These technologies have been changing rapidly over the past 10 years and it’s essential that healthcare professionals, if they are not already, begin to consider the role of these technologies in the healthcare system,” Dr Waardenberg said.
 
As a result, a high-level of capability throughout healthcare in the use of data is becoming essential. The stakes are particularly high for those in leadership positions, as they are responsible for future-proofing the sector and delivering clinical care and cost benefits.
 
“Healthcare professionals need to be aware of what these data sets mean, and apply and interpret findings appropriately. Leaders need to understand the impact these data sets can have on the health system and to begin accommodating transformations into their strategic plans,” Dr Waardenberg said.
  
The demand for data scientists has also exploded over the past decade, with Harvard Business Review declaring it the “sexiest job of the 21st century” in 2012. In the following five years, according to LinkedIn's 2017 Emerging Jobs Report, data scientist jobs in the US will increase by more than 650 per cent. 
 
But, there is a substantial shortfall in the available talent pool. The skills shortage is so severe in the Asia-Pacific region that only one-third of data science jobs are being filled.
 
Through its CTBMB and online academic offerings, James Cook University is responding to the data revolution.
 
“Data science is being integrated into the university curricular, such as the Master of Data Science at JCU. This is in response to the abundance of data being generated globally and the need to obtain meaningful information from it,” Dr Waardenberg said.
 
“One application of this in the healthcare system is where the role of data (e.g. genomic) is changing rapidly, creating a need for trained personnel.”
 
Beyond healthcare, the CTBMB will also harness data to further knowledge in the themes of Tropical Biodiversity, Methods/Pipeline Development, and Tropical Food Production.
 
James Cook University offers three 100 per cent online postgraduate courses designed for mature age students that allows further education to be completed whilst working full time – including the Master of Data Science.
 

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