Berkeley joins global alliance to create genomic database

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UC Berkeley has joined a global alliance of premier medical, research and disease prevention organizations that aims to create an international database of shared genomic and clinical data.

The database would unite disparate research and health care databases to create the broadest sample of genetic sequencing and clinical maladies in the world, giving researchers unprecedented statistical data in the fight against many diseases, especially cancer. More than 70 organizations spanning more than 40 countries are part of the project.

The alliance — citing its report, first published Jan. 28 and entitled “Creating a Global Alliance to Enable Responsible Sharing of Genomic and Clinical Data” — believes it must act quickly to create a system of organized genomic data to rationalize the massive influx of genetic information that resulted from a sharp decline in sequencing costs in recent years.

Creating this new database, however, will require overcoming significant organizational and patient-privacy challenges.

One of the eight original organizers of the alliance, professor David Haussler, director at the Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering at UC Santa Cruz, said that the systems currently set up at most organizations make it impossible to compare future genomic data.

“The individual organizations will be overloaded, and they will all have done it in different formats and with different (privacy) consent forms and different sharing rules,” he said. “We’ll have this legacy problem that will be unbelievably nasty.”

UC Berkeley professor of computer science David Patterson, a contributing author to the report, believes that once issues with patient privacy and organizational standards can be rectified, the database will open up many avenues for predicting and fighting cancer.

“There is no technical obstacle to putting this information together,” he said. “It just entails (the member organizations) figuring out a way to agree on standards and to cooperate and to pledge to work together. That is what this alliance is about.”

Patterson plans to implement algorithms when looking at genomic data from the database.

“Right now, we classify cancer by where it appears in the body — as opposed to the genetic makeup of the patient,” he said. “If we start collecting this information together, we can get new scientific discoveries that may be interesting in other parts of the campus.”

The alliance, conceived late last year, has many obstacles to overcome, explained Hank Greely, director of the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences.

“Every country has different research ethics rules and different data privacy rules,” he said. “Furthermore, every study using human participants is going to be covered by a different set of agreements. There is a great effort to try to make sure the data is used only for the purposes that the participants in the studies expect.”

Contact Chase at [email protected]