Atul Butte, MD, PhD, explores huge datasets to find life-saving patterns

“Hiding in these seas of data is knowledge that could change a patient’s life – or the entire world. There’s priceless stuff out there. With a little funding, we can find it.”
- Atul Butte, MD, PhD

A digital treasure hunter, Atul Butte spends his days diving into oceans of data in search of new ways to improve health and save lives. Teasing out hidden patterns and correlations, he is on an endless quest for fresh insights.

A tsunami of medical data is crashing all around us. Since the advent of electronic medical records, virtually every patient leaves a detailed data trail. These days, everything gets saved. Prescriptions, test results, imaging studies, DNA sequences, clinical trials data, and more all end up in vast databases, contributing to a flood of information that’s growing by a zettabyte (1021 bytes or a billion terabytes) every year.

Making sense of all this data and putting it to work for patients is no small task. That’s where a visionary like Atul, supported by Stanford’s world-class programs in computer science and quantitative analysis, has an edge. With a multidisciplinary crew of collaborators, Atul searches these seas of information for what he calls “biomedical moments.”

These moments are tipping points – crucial times when things can either go well or wrong for patients – and precious insights often hide in the data surrounding them. “We want to know what will keep patients on the right track to a good outcome,” Atul says, “and these moments tell us where to look.”

Atul calls his approach “data-driven systems medicine,” and it’s yielding valuable results fast. By comparing data from thousands of cancer patients with data on hundreds of FDA approved drugs, he and his team found that desipramine, an antidepressant that’s been in use for years, has a surprising side effect. It kills certain lung and neuroendocrine tumors. They tested the effect and began phase II clinical trials in less than a tenth of the time and for a fraction of the cost it takes the pharmaceutical industry to start trials on a new drug. And that’s just one example of many.

A wildly productive bunch, Atul and his team average a new publication every 16 days. They can move at this blistering pace because they don’t have have to start with long, expensive laboratory experiments to gather the data they need to test their ideas. It’s already out there, much of it in public databases, just waiting for someone to ask the right questions of it. That makes this a particularly promising area for philanthropy – modest investments here can quickly return significant results.

“I think of it as thawing frozen discoveries,” says Atul, who was named a 2013 Champion for Change by President Obama. “They’re out there, waiting. All we have to do is find them.”