SAS provides the tools for more effective research
The ability to access patient data from a range of different institutions has been virtually impossible in the past. For BioGrid Australia, a small non-profit organisation, their federated technology platform plus SAS' analytical tools is now enabling researchers to easily and quickly analyse data to inform treatment outcomes.
For years doctors and hospitals across Australia have been collecting information on various diseases and the way in which they are diagnosed and treated for the purposes of research. Most of this information is stored within individual databases. Using analytical tools from SAS, BioGrid Australia provides the technology to link anonymous patient information from these different databases in a way that maintains the privacy of the patient and the security of the information.
BioGrid Chief Executive Officer Maureen Turner says this means information from greater numbers of patients can be combined, leading to more effective and powerful research.
Driving value from data
"Data is only valuable if you can drive value from it," she says. "BioGrid was initially set up by clinical researchers who were trying to find more effective solutions to clinical problems. Since its success we have been receiving interest from global pharmaceutical companies as nothing like our multi-site data collaboration exists elsewhere."
The main role of BioGrid is working with institutions to connect their data in and helping researchers use it most effectively.
"Data resides in the institutions where it is collected," Turner says. "Our role is to link these data into BioGrid's federated platform and provide a system for data access and retrieval, not in interpreting these data – that is what the researchers do."
Researchers access and analyse data using SAS Enterprise Guide. BioGrid has licences for 100 users.
"We like the analytical capabilities of SAS," Turner says. "We connect a lot of different data sources such as Excel, Access, relational databases, and others that are specifically customised. All types can connect into the federated system but if you want to look at data across different data sources you want them to look the same. SAS allows these data sources to be presented in a standardised format that makes it a lot easier for researchers to review and analyse their data."
One area where BioGrid has been instrumental is with the national bowel screening program, where people aged between 50 and 70 are offered a free test every five years.
Research utilising BioGrid has demonstrated the significant impact of the program as researchers were able to analyse data from more than 1200 bowel cancer patients from 19 sites around Australia. These results would have been much more difficult and time intensive to combine and analyse without the use of SAS' advanced analytical tools.
"The analysis produced showed the government the importance of the bowel screening program," Turner says. "It indicated that early diagnosis of bowel cancer not only significantly improved the chances of patient survival, it reduced the cost of treatment per patient as advanced bowel cancer requires expensive drugs to treat."
This informed the 2012 federal budget announcement of $50 million to extend the program for another four years.
A major challenge BioGrid initially faced was in the setting up of a collaboration agreement between the researchers and institutions that make their databases available.
"The agreement is a substantial legal document that focuses on factors such as data contribution and access, intellectual property, commercialisation and how research is acknowledged for publication," Turner says. "This took quite some time to put in place but now it is set up to streamline the data sharing process."
Turner says that although collaborative research is challenging, it can be very rewarding producing robust outcomes from a large number of patients across many institutions. "This is where BioGrid can assist as we can provide relevant data across multiple institutions. SAS has been instrumental in streamlining the data analysis process enabling research activities to be more comprehensive and more efficient."
A future area of interest for BioGrid is co-morbidity – the effect of one or more diseases on a patient in addition to his or her primary disease.
"A cancer patient, for example, may have a number of co-morbidities, such as hypertension or diabetes, and given drugs for all of them," Turner says. "There has been little research on how to effectively treat patients with multiple diseases. Using data available through BioGrid, researchers might find the same patient presenting for different diseases at different institutions and be able to analyse these data further."
Turner adds SAS's data analysis capabilities would be instrumental in cross-referencing information on multiple diseases and reporting trends.
Funded by the Victorian Government, BioGrid was established in 2003 and while it is well-known in Victoria, Turner says there is more work to be done around what it can offer to the wider research community. Most of its researchers are based in Victoria but it wants to facilitate collaborative research across borders and connect more data throughout Australia into the research platform.
"Using our expertise and SAS tools, we can make the research effort easier for clinicians," she says. "Often it takes a long time to gather data, so if it is already available through BioGrid it is a much easier task for researchers. The ethics approvals to make these data available for research have already been given, reducing the time researchers normally need to spend obtaining approval to access and use data."
Turner says BioGrid is very happy with SAS, in particular because of the attitude it has displayed towards the company.
"We are a small, non-profit organisation – not one I expect is a typical customer of SAS, but SAS has demonstrated its professionalism and customer focus in its business relationships, and having a supplier with this approach is beneficial," Turner says. "This is also a good message for SMEs as often these types of analytical tools are only used by the big end of town. Despite the fact that we are a small niche customer, SAS has gone the extra mile to help us."
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Maureen Turner, BioGrid Australia
BioGrid needed a way to make data from different sources, such as hospitals and research institutions, available in a secure and reliable manner.
SAS® Enterprise Guide.
Using SAS, BioGrid has been able to make data from a range of different sources and locations easily and quickly available to clinical researchers, assisting them with their projects. Its work is also informing government to determine which health projects to fund.
“The analysis produced showed the government the importance of the bowel screening program. It indicated that early diagnosis of bowel cancer not only significantly improved the chances of patient survival, it reduced the cost of treatment per patient as advanced bowel cancer requires expensive drugs to treat.”
Chief Executive Officer, BioGrid Australia