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NIH Slates $9M for Health Data Commons Pilot


The 4-year program aims to spur collaboration to advance biomedical research.

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) wants to tear down the walls between biomedical researchers and the data that could yield meaningful new findings.

That’s why the government agency today announced $9 million in awards to 12 entities. The recipients will use the money to launch the NIH’s Health Data Commons Pilot Phase, a 4-year program in which innovators and investigators will try to develop best practices for sharing information across digital platforms, according to the declaration.

“Harvesting the wealth of information in biomedical data will advance our understanding of human health and disease,” NIH Director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD, said in a statement. “However, poor data accessibility is a major barrier to translating data into understanding. The NIH Data Commons Pilot Phase is an important effort to remove that barrier.”

Among the recipients are researchers from Harvard Medical School, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, University of Oxford, University of Chicago, Deloitte Consulting, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The list, which names roughly 50 individual participants, spans academia, government, and industry.

Investigators will work on public clouds, determining how to share the “digital objects of biomedical research,” like data and analytics, with other institutions.

The NIH identified several “key capabilities” that it expects the researchers to develop. These points embody the principles, policies, processes, and infrastructure of a biomedical research data commons, according to the agency. Those goals include fostering data transparency and interoperability, protecting patient data, and gathering support for data standards.

NIH officials and pilot participants have high hopes for the project.

“The NIH Data Commons Pilot Phase will create new opportunities for research not feasible before,” Vivien Bonazzi, PhD, who’s managing the pilot. “Making biomedical data sets accessible and connected at an unprecedented scale will lead to creative new ways to combine, analyze, and ask questions to generate new knowledge.”

Participants will use 3 NIH data sets—from the Genotype-Tissue Expression, the Alliance of Genome Resources, and the Trans-Omics for Precision Medicine—as test cases in the pilot. The agency selected these collections for their value to biomedical researchers, data diversity, and coverage of basic and clinical research, according to the announcement.

Architects of the pilot intend to add more data sets to the mix once the program hits its primary objectives, they noted.

Awardees will collaborate to reach those goals. The biomedical data analysis company Seven Bridges Genomics, for example, said today it is charged with pushing forward “NIH’s vision for a virtual biomedical data discovery and computing environment” advocating “FAIR,” the drive to make data findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable. The company will work alongside Repositive, the VA, and Elsevier under a sub-project called “FAIR data to drive CURES.”

“The NIH Data Commons promises to transform the way public biomedical data is stored and analyzed,” Brandi Davis-Dusenberg, PhD, CEO of Seven Bridges, said in a statement. “An effort of this scale has never been tried before and its focus on interoperable data accessibility answers the call to break open data siloes, setting new standards for healthcare research.”

The MITRE Corporation, a federally funded research and development center, will help establish “sustainable infrastructure,” including people, processes, and technologies, for data science at the NIH. The company plans to explore cost-effective cloud-based computing and storage, perform analyses regarding cost and usage, and more.

The NIH Common Fund manages the data commons pilot. Other institutes provide assistance and funding.

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