The human body is still a more complex machine than any computer in the world. But researchers in Canada are using advanced analytics to understand the interplay of factors that keep us healthy and well.
Since April, IBM Canada has invested hundreds of millions into a research and development centre, an initiative to pool the collective knowledge of government, academia and the private sector to tackle issues of high public interest. Last week, the company announced it would partner with seven Canadian universities to aid them in their research on various medical conditions and the effects of climate change.
Shannon O’Connor, director of the IBM Canada Research and Development Centre, says the development of the Centre has been nothing short of extraordinary, not only in terms of the $210 million IBM has spent on it so far, but also in the robustness of the partnerships.
Throughout her career, she’s been involved in numerous partnerships. But this is something else. “The collaborative spirit I see with this consortium is like none I’ve ever seen before.”
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Western University is trying to improve diagnostic tests for Alzheimer’s disease, autism and schizophrenia, while McMaster University is developing software that can ensure the safety of insulin pumps.
These institutions join a veteran IBM partner, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, which has been using IBM technology for health informatics for several years through an ongoing project called Artemis, which was launched to provide better and more precise health metrics.
It’s the potential for life-saving innovations that O’Connor says are the most compelling aspects of her work.
“The human impact is phenomenal,” says O’Connor. “What excites me — and I would put the McMaster project in this category — is the true business value impact of some of these projects,” she says.
“That software certification project will save lives by improving insulin pumps. The Artemis expansion project will save lives, and will dramatically reduce the cost of health care by enabling us to identify unhealthy infants and directionally unhealthy adults sooner so we can take action on it.”
Carolyn McGregor is a professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, and also holds the Canada Research Chair in Health Informatics. She’s been deeply involved in the Artemis project from the beginning.
One of her most pressing concerns is finding ways to look for the subtle hints that infants are suffering health problems before it’s too late. Hospitals use a variety of devices to keep track of vital signs, including heart rate monitors, machines that measure respiration through chest movement, and probes that indicate blood oxygen saturation.
But historically, it wasn’t easy to dig deep enough to find possible interactions between all of these data points. So hospitals would simply consolidate the information flowing in.
For instance, says McGregor, a baby’s heart beats around twice every second, and the number of beats is tallied over the period of an hour. “There are 7,200 times, roughly, that a baby’s heart will beat in that hour, and they write one number down,” she says.
“ So, we’re missing a lot in terms of subtle trends and behaviours,” she adds. “There’s been early research that’s shown that if you watch much more closely every beat every breath you can start to detect conditions that the baby’s developing, because the body’s coming under stress—it has certain responses to that—and we can start to pick these things up.”
But to do so, you need technology that can analyze data flowing in in a continuous stream, she says. Not too many years ago, researchers like her had to “write a lot of code” in different programming languages to parse the data, looking for a particular heartbeat, for example. The theoretical basis for the technique was sound, but it was impractical to carry out in the real world.
This was also true in the case of neonatal spills, when a baby’s heart slows dangerously or there are abnormally long pauses in breathing due to an improperly formed brain stem (in effect, they would forget to breathe). Blood oxygen can also be a problem, says McGregor. When looking for a complex interaction between all those three, programming can become “very difficult,” she says.
But as soon as she began using IBM’s InfoSphere Streams software, things got dramatically easier. First and foremost, she says, it was designed specifically to process data in a stream. It also has an easy–to-use interface and can compare values and create aggregates with “very simple single line instructions.”
Following an initial pilot project using the technology at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto in 2009, McGregor says she’s now confident that it will aid current research in the area of neonatal spills.“We’re just about to start the next phase of that study,” says McGregor.
Looking to the future, she hopes to expand her project by creating a cloud-based platform that more hospitals in Canada can tap into. And IBM, she says, is fully on board.
“It’s something we definitely need in Canada, particularly in Ontario, if we’re trying to demonstrate that we really can be innovation leaders.”