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Research Avenue – MUN Spin-Off Uses Big Data For Healthcare

Big Data evangelists often say data analytics will improve and lower the cost of health care, and Research Avenue of St. John’s is working each day to make it so.

Research Avenue is a bioinformatics startup that is commercializing research at Memorial University of Newfoundland by analyzing genetic data to develop algorithms for predicting risks of developing diseases. The initial target is colon cancer, but the system could apply to other diseases.

Company president Tyler Wish said in an interview at the recent Face2Face conference in Baddeck that Research Avenue is examining a range of potential risk factors, including genetics, to determine whether individuals and families are at increased risk of developing specific diseases. The goal is to provide more effective preventive health care by screening high-risk patients more frequently and low-risk people less often, saving money while improving early detection.

“We are very interested in developing solutions for personalized medicine — providing the right treatment to the right patient at the right time,” said Wish.

A native of Vancouver, Wish himself is in the right place (St. John’s) at the right time (2013) to build a bioinformatics and diagnostics business.

Not only has modern medicine cracked the genome code, but the time and cost of analyzing the human genome has plunged dramatically, so a project that cost about $3 billion a decade ago can be completed for $3,000 to $5,000 today. As well, it has become possible to gain more insight from these complex data sets with the recent advent of powerful data-mining tools and machine learning approaches.

As well, Newfoundland and Labrador is an ideal location for genetic research because of its founder population — a unique, homogeneous population that is highly conducive to investigating medical genetics.

The province also has a high level of colon cancer, which means Wish and his collaborators at Memorial University have been able to assemble a very rich data set containing genetic and epidemiological information for a large number of colorectal cancer patients from Newfoundland and Labrador. There are more than one billion pieces of data.

“We have a really nice R&D platform here in our backyard, and data continues to be generated,” Wish said.

Research Avenue is spending the next six months conducting a bioinformatics project to assess its ability to assess colorectal cancer patients and rank them according to risk profile. If successful, they will look to validate their technology in other population-based data sets, perhaps with collaborators in Toronto, Utah and New York.

Research Avenue, based at the Genesis Centre at Memorial University, has been conducting medical research with collaborators and on behalf of private clients, to develop and commercialize innovative health care technologies.

It is performing clinical studies for Vancouver-based biotech Eupraxia Pharmaceuticals.

Research Avenue is looking to partner with the National Research Council and other groups, such as Genome Atlantic.

Wish said the company will likely need some angel or venture capital financing, although it is unlikely to make a decision until it finishes its discovery study.