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NOE award will help SUNY access the largest medical research grants

By Todd R. McAdam 

A $150,000 grant could help propel New York’s medical researchers to the head of the line when it comes to research funding – and give doctors a tool to help better diagnose and treat patients. 

The planning grant from the SUNY Health Network of Excellence is helping Dr. Peter Winkelstein figure out what it would take to link the patient data from six campuses with clinical and public health interests – at the universities at Buffalo, Albany and Stony Brook; Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, Upstate Medical University in Syracuse and the SUNY College of Optometry in New York. A school of pharmacy planned for Binghamton University could be added later. 

Combining those records into a health data repository would give SUNY researchers access to records for a million or more patients – enough for the largest and most complex medical studies funded. 

“One federal source requires a million records just to apply,” said Winkelstein, director of the Institute for Healthcare Informatics at the University at Buffalo. “SUNY is not way behind, but SUNY is not a leader, either. We do have the opportunity to take a big step forward.” 

The challenge is this: Each of the medical campuses keeps patient records differently, with different systems, and nobody knows what it would take to link them together. 

Further, the campuses all have different contractual agreements with partner hospitals and health-care agencies. Buffalo, for example, doesn’t have its own hospital but partners with two. Upstate runs three hospitals of its own, plus other facilities, and has a partnership through its Binghamton Clinical Campus with three health networks that operate six more hospitals and other facilities. 

But if all that data can be linked – a process that would require further funding – it would create vast potential for health care research, planning and delivery in New York: 

  • Researchers would have access to huge amounts of data. “The more information you have, the more research and better research you can do,” Winkelstein said. 
  • Care providers could access the data for personalized medicine. It wouldn’t provide real-time benefits, like notice of drug allergies or pre-existing conditions on a patient in the emergency room. But it could refer a doctor to a SUNY-based expert, said Dr. Mark Stewart, dean of graduate studies and vice dean for research at Downstate Medical Center. It could also, by comparing a patient’s profile with the database, flag potential hurdles or better treatment options, Winkelstein said. 
  • Theoretically, Stewart and Winkelstein said, the repository could help in public-health planning. Again, not with real-time alerts of public health threats, but by analyzing data. The database could correlate a particular diagnosis, childhood asthma for example, with hard-to-predict factors like nearby geographical or industrial features.

“We could become the hub for a lot of statewide data,” Stewart said. “If we’re going to move toward network-level research, we’re going to need network-level resources.” 

Big data research is the future, Winkelstein said. Using large datasets researchers can virtually experiment with treatments without spending the time or money on clinical trials. That way, clinical trials can be reserved for only the most promising advances. “Scale is important in this field,” he said. 

Winkelstein and Stewart have no cost estimate for a health data repository – that’s one of the questions the SUNY Networks of Excellence grant was meant to answer, but the investment pays off with just one or two grants. 

“It would not surprise me to get $10 million in research activity linked to this every year,” Stewart said. 

The network, once developed, would position SUNY for even wider partnerships, Stewart said. National and international resources generally will require commitment in the form of money, time or data for linkage. A SUNY-wide data repository would enable connection on those larger scales.  

“This is one way the SUNY system can show itself as an expert in medicine,” he said. 

The planning grant is meant to yield answers by a mid-May conference, Winkelstein said. In the meantime, simply the effort of getting the SUNY campuses to communicate can lead to progress. Buffalo researchers are already exploring possibilities for joint research with doctors from Upstate in Syracuse, simply because they took the time to meet and exchange ideas. 

“We’re building a lot of relationships among the campuses,” he said.

Tags Tags: University at Buffalo , Downstate Medical Center , Networks of Excellence

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