Illustration by Vicki Nerino
Alberta is sitting on a true 21st-century resource that is ripe for exploration, but it’s not clean tech or rare earth minerals — it’s medical data. “In the way we mined coal in the past and now we mine oil … we should be mining medical data,” says Mel Wong, CEO of BioAlberta, the province’s leading life sciences industry group.
Medical data is essentially records of a person’s health and the treatments they’ve received. Currently, only medical research teams working out of or affiliated with universities can access it, and that access varies on a case-by-case basis. Bioscience and pharmaceutical giants also want access to this public and private patient data to develop better treatments and analytics tools. And for Albertans living with cancer, this comprehensive approach to understanding data offers a more complete picture of a patient’s medical journey and better helps medical professionals conducting research view patients as a whole and not just a single diagnosis.
Wong says Alberta has all the key factors for rich medical data: a single-payer system, population in the millions and a willingness from government and medical researchers to see anonymized medical data made available to private industry. The anonymization process, either encrypting or removing personal information from data sets, is done by bulkcollecting software programs and ensures privacy protection. This “living lab” can be very useful. For example, if a pharmaceutical company wanted information on the effectiveness of a specific medication, it could access a massive pool of precise, “real world” data that include the history and experience of thousands of people.
This access to information makes Alberta an attractive place to conduct research, which is very good for patients, says Theresa Radwell, vice president program investment, Alberta Cancer Foundation.
“Pharmaceutical companies can use this ‘live lab’ data to create a laboratory scenario and run targeted or focused trials in the province. Alberta will be seen as even more attractive to industry partners who want to conduct research improving outcomes for patients,” Radwell says. “For Alberta patients, this means greater access to trials and therefore the latest and newest treatments.”
The biosciences industry is clamouring for the data to develop the next wave of medical analytics tools. These technological advances will help usher in a new age in precision medicine, with patients being the ultimate benefactors. “We’d be able to improve the overall health and well-being of Albertans,” Wong says. “We’d be able to look at what’s worked, what hasn’t and what’s worked better than other approaches in terms of personal health-care programs, in drugs and prescription programs.” BioAlberta’s vision of making Alberta an international hub of medical data could also be a huge economic play for the province, Wong says.
“I don’t know of a jurisdiction yet that has gone far enough to make this vision happen, and I think we have the opportunity to do that,” he says. “Someone is going to do it and it might as well be Alberta.”
Access to anonymized medical data means a pharmaceutical company can plug in specific factors for cross-referencing information, for example where a patient lives, family history and what other medications they may be taking. This incredibly specific information will result in a clearer understanding of the type of treatments that are working and for whom.