Panel on addressing personalized medicine through big data. Mallika Makkar/THE VARSITY

What do bits and bytes have to do with our body? Believe it or not, utilizing health data can be the key to finding innovative solutions for age-old health problems. With a wealth of data now at the fingertips of doctors, researchers, and computer scientists, the next best medical discovery may come from moving numbers around, rather than organs.

Last Wednesday, the Massey Grand Rounds symposium was held at Massey College. The yearly event is run by graduate fellows of Massey College, and this year’s conference featured a number of impressive names in the field of data-based medicine, such as Dr. Stephen Scherer and Dr. Arvind Gupta — both of whom were presenting as keynote speakers.

The two speakers are leaders in their respective fields. Scherer was designated a Nobel-class “Citation Laureate” for his “Nobel-class” research on autism in 2014. Gupta was recently appointed president of the University of British Columbia, before joining U of T’s computer science department as a distinguished visiting professor.

Speaking first, Gupta discussed how computer science is transforming medicine. He made special note of how wearables -— devices that track your body’s day-to-day activities — can collect data to make individualized medicine a reality. An example of wearable technology is the FitBit line of activity trackers.

“We have devices that can measure your pulse, your blood pressure, your glucose level… Now imagine going to your doctor. Instead of just taking a snapshot of your health from the few minutes that you’re in their office, they can see how these indicators have been changing with time.  So they’re getting a longitudinal health profile,” Gupta explained in his talk. “We expect in the next ten years, wearables that will predict a potential heart attack, hours to days before it happens,” he added.

Scherer spoke about his use of genomic data in making genetic links to autism, a disorder caused by a number of different types of genetic aberrations. When discussing his research and the recent breakthroughs made in understanding autism, Scherer notes that “our major advances have come through big data analyses.”

Beyond trying to understanding autism, Scherer extends the study of autism into the field of philosophy. He astutely notes that “because the features affected by autism are the features that make us most uniquely human… understanding these concepts will help us understand how the brain works and what makes us uniquely human.”

Other guests at the event included Dr. Nancy Reid, who was also featured as a keynote speaker, Dr. Michael Brudno, Dr. Joseph Geraci, Dr. Michael Schill, Dr. Khai N. Truong, and Dr. Trevor Young.

The event was a great experience for the U of T community to hear from world leaders about making big data accessible for individualized solutions.

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