Sharing CERN's expertise in big data with the biomedical community

On 6-7 June, CERN hosted a first-of-its-kind workshop on big data in medicine. The event marked the conclusion of a two-year pilot investigation into how CERN-developed technologies and techniques related to computing and big data could potentially be used to address challenges faced in biomedicine. The main goal of the workshop was to establish the terms for broader collaboration with the medical and healthcare research communities in future.

CERN and the high-energy physics community have pioneered the use of large-scale, distributed, data-driven research models. Over recent years, other scientific fields have begun to collect and process ever more data, meaning that they now face similar challenges in terms of data infrastructures, computing technologies, and software applications.

In 2017, CERN adopted a specific knowledge-transfer strategy for the benefit of medical applications. This strategy focuses on maximising the impact of CERN’s engagement through sharing knowledge and ideas with the medical and healthcare communities, in order to identify the most relevant applications for these user communities.

“Applications of CERN technologies and know-how in the medical domain have the highest potential for impact on society”, says Manuela Cirilli, leader of the Medical Applications section within CERN’s Knowledge Transfer group. “CERN will continue to support the knowledge-transfer process from particle physics to medical research and the medical technology industry, in order to boost healthcare innovation and provide solutions to present and future health challenges.”

CERN’s strategy covers applications related to the three major technology pillars of high-energy physics: particle accelerators, detectors, and computing.

The workshop brought together leaders from a variety of fields related to the application of big-data technologies and techniques in biomedicine. The World Health Organization and the European Commission were both represented at the event, as well as a number of leading universities. Participants discussed topics such as personalised medicine, in silico trials, digital health ecosystems, blockchain, and more. Several talks centred on data, addressing various aspects related to its handling — including data privacy, compatibility, and preservation. Many discussions also focused on emerging technologies, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). The ethics of these technologies — particularly when used in a biomedical context — were also discussed at length.

“Through the workshop, we tried to separate the hype from the reality when it comes to big-data technologies and AI for personalised medicine,” says Manjit Dosanjh, CERN’s Senior Advisor for Medical Applications and co-organiser of the event.  “It was also an important first step towards understanding what we really need to do to turn the promise of these technologies into reality.”

On the second day of the event, participants took part in an in-depth discussion, which will serve as the basis for a white paper to be published later this year. This document will set out the main societal and economic challenges in medical research and healthcare systems that emerged from the discussion, describe how collaborative platforms and big-data technologies can help addressing such challenges, and provide recommendations on how such multi-disciplinary efforts could be organised.

 During these in-depth discussions, it became clear that the participants from the biomedical community were not only keen on learning about technologies developed at CERN, but were also eager to understand more about the intricacies of CERN’s model for collaboration across countries and research communities, as well as how technological innovation and adoption is driven within our community.

"It was very interesting to see the interaction from experts of different fields folding out in front of our eyes during these two days,” says Alberto Di Meglio, head of CERN openlab and co-organiser of the event. “It proves that CERN can provide the ground for ‘outside-the-box’ discussions and can help stimulate new ways of thinking.”

“Dialogue of this kind between diverse research communities is always beneficial,” continues Di Meglio. “As well as sharing the expertise we have built up with various big-data technologies, we are also able to learn a lot from our interaction with research communities now facing similar challenges”.

The workshop also marked the end of Philippe Lambin’s two-year tenure as chair of the CERN Medical Applications Advisory Committee. “CERN is an inspiring place, that leads all of us to dream,” says Lambin, who leads ‘The D-Lab’ at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. “In pursuing its mission to unravel the secrets of the universe, CERN has developed a range of technologies that are of great interest to the medical community.” He continues: “CERN is always careful to avoid competing with or duplicating the work of existing organisations, but there is nevertheless significant value in bringing together leading experts from a number of fields in a cross-domain workshop like this.”


To find out more about the workshop, please visit the event page, where you can access the presentations given.