METM21 Online Chronicles: Katarzyna Szymańska

Big data and precision medicine: high hopes or great confusion? A brief guided tour for scientific translators and editors

This talk was particularly interesting for editors and translators working in medicine and the life sciences, but was broad enough for anyone who wanted to know more about recent developments in medicine. Katarzyna Szymańska took us through a brief history of Western evidence-based medicine. Along the way, she explained the two current meanings of reverse translation in this particular field, which are rather different to what it means in our language work!

From cells to chromosomes to genes and genomes, laboratory investigations have become more precise, much more rapid, and with much deeper implications for the patient in the past 50 years. Multi-omics data (multiple different sets of molecular data) is collected by biobanks sometimes covering hundreds of thousands of patients. This biological data can be linked to environmental data (which covers lifestyle, exposure to certain materials, air pollution, etc.), ethnic data and family data to build up a more complete picture of an individual patient, or groups of patients, and their diseases.

It was helpful that Katarzyna gave definitions of several genetic and genomic terms and also explained that “modern genomic tools have revealed that it [the genome] is more complex, diverse and dynamic than previously thought” to make us aware of the rapid changes in the field.

She went on to outline the different terms used for this modern approach to medicine, among them, precision medicine, personalized medicine, individual medicine and targeted therapy. These are often used as synonyms in the media, but in certain fields, like genetic research or cancer treatment, they may take on more precise meanings. Personally, I feel it’s always a good idea to check this with your author when making any editorial changes.

Katarzyna ended with “Big data and precision medicine: high hopes or confusion? Both! … and more to come”. So watch for updates in upcoming METMs.

A lively discussion followed the talk. Kate McIntyre added that precision medicine can be used for genetic testing to see whether a patient is a fast or slow metabolizer of a certain drug, so that the drug’s dosage can be altered accordingly. Mary Fons commented on the fact that “big data” is now being collected by devices such as smart watches and activity trackers. Mary wondered, “Could we say ‘big data’ is what can only be properly processed using artificial intelligence?”. As Katarzyna said, her presentation left us with more questions than answers, but questions that are well worth pondering.

This METM21 Online presentation was chronicled by Jackie Senior.

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