Precision Medicine Forum Editor Mark Glover spoke to the BlueBee’s CEO Hans Cobben (pictured) about enabling and facilitating the potential of precision medicine through data analysis.
BlueBee offers an advanced global bio-informatics platform to analyse, share and store genomics data. It supports users in clinical diagnostics, pharma and research with advanced analytics for genomic discovery that will fuel the future of data driven medicine.
In 2011, some of the best academic minds in high-performance computing, genomics and cloud computing came together via universities in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom to form BlueBee, two years later Hans Cobben joined the firm as CEO and when we spoke on the phone it was clear how happy he is in the position. “I’m up early every day,” he says. “One of the most important aspects of running BlueBee is that with almost every single solution we bring to the market, ultimately people will benefit will from them. This is what drives me.”
Since the company was established seven years ago, precision medicine has progressed considerably. Rapid and significant improvements in technology has contributed to this, including the accessible price per-KB for sequencing, allowing for more sequence data to be worked on in laboratories all over the world.
However, Cobben also cites the effects of an aging population on healthcare costs and rises in antibiotic resistance as other reasons for its advancement. “All of these concerns have resulted in the need to treat people more precisely and more quickly,” he explains, “while at the same time keeping costs down and improve the efficiency, accuracy and outcomes of the expensive treatments.”
A big part in the evolution of Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) is the processing of large amounts of raw data and enable data driven results which BlueBee helps to facilitate.
However, dealing with personal data on such a huge scale raises ethical and moral questions about a person’s right to privacy. I ask Cobben about this and wonder if society should indeed be concerned about sharing this type of information? “I understand completely where this is coming from but at the same time I’m convinced that this fear is slightly misplaced as there are solutions to cope with security,” he says. “Ultimately, we need to figure out a balance between sharing data and respecting the individual’s rights to privacy.”
In a society that is comfortable sharing credit card details online and posting their most intimate details on Facebook does precision medicine, therefore, need to take another approach to security? “Data security is paramount in the development of the field,” Cobben says, “but I think precision medicine heavily relies on secure data analysis. It’s about encryption, regional data requirements, secure access and processing of anonymized patients’ genomic data, this is obviously very different to the process of sharing personal data on Facebook for example.”
Continent by continent, country to country the frameworks of data sharing can be extremely different and in Europe, it is even more complicated. Each country has a layer of its own regulations that sits on top of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that will be compulsory in May this year. It’s a framework that Cobben feels could be improved by greater global-scale and standardization as well as addressing the barriers that exist between countries, such as security and compliance alignment, it’s a huge challenge but one that Cobben and BlueBee are relishing. “To move precision medicine forward, a global solution to the data security and privacy needs to be implemented,” he says. “It’s about the ability to comply with each country’s regional or local regulation of the management and storage of personal genomic data but at the same time providing secure and compliant ways to utilize the information you garner from that data.”
Facilitating insights for our customers, from the vast amount of data they work with is at the core of BlueBee’s approach. Indeed, Cobben calls this insight wisdom and it’s an appropriate description. “It is ultimately in the data; data produces insights and insights produce wisdom,” he says.
“We need to combine treatment data, genomic data and healthcare records, which is what we (BlueBee) are trying to do. We can facilitate the development of the field as we don’t just focus on clinical implementation we can incorporate data from different sources in way that utilizes all technologies.”
“It doesn’t matter where the data comes from, it can be analyzed and stored on our platform. We can enable and develop applications to incorporate this new data, combined from different sources. The multitude of data sources and the multitude of individuals that can contribute to an individual precision medicine treatment requires collaboration via a secured environment.”
I ask Cobben where he thinks the field of precision medicine will be in ten years’ time and his answer is an interesting one: “I think there will be fertile ground for precision medicine being used in the first world as well as in less developed countries,” he offers. When I ask him, as I do of all my interviewees for this site, what inspires them, his response is heart-warming. “It’s the knowledge that we are helping people in the most remote parts of the world, that is incredibly motivating for me and the whole team. I think we are really breaking down barriers and this really makes me tick.”
In a decade’s time, precision medicine will have moved on again. BlueBee’s approach to enabling and facilitating insights from the data will be a big part of this movement.
Hans Cobben will be presenting Precision Medicine: A Data Enabled Reality and hosting a round-table discussion entitled Bound to co-exist: Population genomics and precision medicine at the Precision Medicine Forum in Copenhagen which takes place from March 20 – 21. You can register for the event here.