Prime Minister joins Sir Ka-shing Li for launch of £90m initiative in big data and drug discovery at Oxford University

3 May 2013

'Big data' to revolutionise healthcare

Radical boost for drug discovery

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, was at Oxford University today to mark the launch of a centre that will put the UK at the forefront of revolutionising healthcare through 'big data' and better drug discovery. The new Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Information and Discovery is supported by a £20m gift from the Li Ka Shing Foundation, announced today, and £10m for big data research from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, also newly announced today.

The potential of 'big data' to revolutionise health research and offer patients better, safer and more personalised treatments will be a major focus of the centre, which will be unique worldwide in providing a dedicated centre of excellence in the emerging field of big data in medicine.

The new Li Ka Shing Centre is being developed in two phases. The first phase will use high-throughput biology to define better drug targets in collaboration with industry, addressing a critical 'blockage' in the existing drug development process. The second phase will focus on the analysis of large data sets, bringing together leading researchers from across genetics, epidemiology and public health, clinical medicine, computer science and IT, statistics and bioinformatics.

The Prime Minister said: 

"I am delighted to be backing our medical science sector and supporting the Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Information and Discovery, which has the potential to revolutionise medical research and healthcare in this country and beyond. 

"The Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Information and Discovery will pioneer new advances in the analysis of medical data which can help scientists to better understand human disease and its treatment. “This will help to further develop a strong and competitive science and research base in this country which is vital for the UK to compete and thrive in the global race."

Sir Ka-shing Li said:

"What will happen here is more than the promise of harnessing the power of a data-intensive revolution to improve health care. The work of this centre will identify innovative ways to increase access to health care while lessening the burden of cost. It will free up resources for much needed investments in educational opportunities. And it will lead to new and deeper competencies that are pragmatic – precise solutions to sustain hope and stability today and lead to even greater discoveries tomorrow."

The Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Professor Andrew Hamilton, said:

"Big data will transform the way we treat patients and understand disease in the coming decades. We are collecting much of this data already. We owe it to ourselves to make full use of it and deliver more effective treatments for all of us as patients. The Li Ka Shing Centre, and this enormously generous gift which underpins it, along with continued public investment, will be instrumental in driving this research forward."

For more information please contact the University of Oxford press office on +44 (0)1865 280530 or press.office@admin.ox.ac.uk

Images are available at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/uniofoxfordpress/

Examples of big data research at Oxford University are available at: http://www.ox.ac.uk/media/news_releases_for_journalists/index.html

Notes to editors

The two elements of the Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Information and Discovery

The Centre is being built in two, linked phases and will house up to 600 scientists when complete.

In the £35m first phase a new building has been completed on the University's Old Road Campus in the east of the city, which the Prime Minister visited today. This Target Discovery Institute will shortly house research generating comprehensive data about disease using genomic and chemical screens – important data for the early stages of drug discovery. It aims to make use of genomic and genetic medicine to more accurately identify good drug targets for industry to pursue. Poor target selection is one of the most important reasons for setbacks in the pharmaceutical industry. The Institute will use novel technology for target identification within the University environment, and seeks to build new working practices with industry.

The second phase of the Centre, the Big Data Institute, will also be accommodated on the University's Old Road Campus.

These two related areas of activity harness novel 21st-century opportunities in healthcare and represent the first examples of these types of research endeavours in academia anywhere in the world.

These two Institutes together form the Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Information and Discovery, which has been boosted by the £20m gift from the Li Ka Shing Foundation, in particular through funding new research positions. The £10m announced today from HEFCE through the second round of its Research Partnership Investment Fund (RPIF) is for the new Big Data Institute building. The Target Discovery Institute received £10m in the first RPIF round.

Big data

The Li Ka Shing Centre, through the Big Data Institute, will develop approaches for generating, storing and analysing large datasets in medical science for a better understanding of human disease and its treatment.

In modern society, very large sets of medical data are now routinely collected – through electronic patient records, DNA sequencing, comprehensive biological data on disease mechanisms, treatment monitoring, clinical trials, pharmacy records, medical imaging, and national registries of hospitalisations, cancers and other outcomes.

Bringing health-related datasets together for researchers to use in an anonymised way, and making use of new tools to scrutinise that data to gain insights, will provide powerful new insights into who develops illnesses and why.

Storing and analysing such vast quantities of data is not straightforward. Making sense of large amounts of complex data, making the right comparisons to generate robust and useful answers, and ensuring the security of the data needs to protect personal privacy are all important challenges.

These research opportunities and challenges will be at the core of the new Big Data Institute. Oxford University already has world-leading expertise in this area: pioneering the introduction of genomics into medical care, leading giant cohort studies like the Million Women Study and UK Biobank, running some of the largest clinical trials of treatment worldwide, and establishing methods for global disease surveillance in malaria and other major infectious diseases.

Drug target discovery

The Li Ka Shing Centre, through the Target Discovery Institute, will use high-throughput and automated approaches to speed the early stages of drug discovery, by identifying better targets for drug development in important diseases such as cancer, diabetes, dementia, psychiatric conditions and inflammatory diseases.

High-throughput biology brings automation to cell biology so that work that might once have been done by a lab technician with a pipette can be done on a large, high-speed scale. It is capable of generating very large amounts of data and provides the opportunity to systematically analyse biological pathways to understand, at a fundamental level, how these pathways could be manipulated to treat disease.

The pharmaceutical industry is hampered by companies' inability to embark on such extensive and detailed studied of potential targets. This can lead to companies spending literally billions of dollars identifying and developing drugs that are actually not acting on a promising biological pathway – slowing down the process of drugs being available for human health. The work at Oxford sees academia stepping in to fill that critical gap.

Research in the Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Information and Discovery

Research will cover a number of strands. These will include:
•    Mining data from electronic patient records as they become increasingly available;
•    Research in genomic medicine, now that the cost and speed of sequencing patients' entire DNA have come down so far to make this realistic in the clinic;
•    The use of genomics and other approaches in disease surveillance, such as mapping the emergence of drug resistance in malaria parasites or tracking the spread of infections in hospitals; and
•    High-throughput and automated approaches that can speed the early stages of drug discovery, by identifying and verifying better targets for drug development in important diseases such as cancer, diabetes, psychiatric conditions and inflammatory diseases where society needs new and better treatments.

The Li Ka Shing Foundation

The Li Ka Shing Foundation was established in 1980 by global entrepreneur and philanthropist Li Ka-shing. Mr Li considers the Foundation to be his "third son" and has pledged one-third of his assets to it. To date, the Foundation has granted over HK$13 billion (US$1.66 billion) in charitable donations, approximately 90 per cent in support of education reform initiatives and medical services in Greater China region.

The Foundation supports projects that promote social progress through expanding access to quality education and medical services and research, encouraging cultural diversity and community involvement. For more information, please visit: http://www.lksf.org

Oxford University's Medical Sciences Division

Oxford University’s Medical Sciences Division is one of the largest biomedical research centres in Europe, with over 2,500 people involved in research and more than 2,800 students. The University is rated the best in the world for medicine, and it is home to the UK's top-ranked medical school.

From the genetic and molecular basis of disease to the latest advances in neuroscience, Oxford is at the forefront of medical research. It has one of the largest clinical trial portfolios in the UK and great expertise in taking discoveries from the lab into the clinic. Partnerships with the local NHS Trusts enable patients to benefit from close links between medical research and healthcare delivery.

A great strength of Oxford medicine is its longstanding network of clinical research units in Asia and Africa, enabling world-leading research on the most pressing global health challenges such as malaria, TB, HIV/AIDS and flu. Oxford is also renowned for its large-scale studies which examine the role of factors such as smoking, alcohol and diet on cancer, heart disease and other conditions.