By Gareth Cook, Globe Staff
Harvard scientists are building a powerful computer system that will
use artificial intelligence to scan the private medical files of 2.5
million people at local hospitals, as part of a government-funded
effort to find the genetic roots of asthma and other diseases.
The $20 million project -- which would probe more deeply and more
quickly into medical records than human researchers are capable of --
is designed to find links between patients' DNA and illnesses.
Although the effort could raise concerns about privacy, researchers
say the new program, called 'I2B2' (for 'Informatics for Integrating
Biology and the Bedside) would respect the strict guidelines set out
in federal and state laws, and could be a powerful tool for many kinds
Hospitals gather huge amounts of information from patients each day --
from blood tests to chest X-rays and brain scans. For decades,
researchers have pored through these records and gleaned insights that
have helped millions of Americans. Now, the Harvard team hopes to put
far more information at the fingertips of researchers, and to speed
the process with sophisticated automation.
Scientists said the Harvard work and similar efforts elsewhere
increase the stakes in the nation's move to medical records stored
With mounting examples of personal financial information being
compromised, work such as this will have to be done with extreme
care. Scientists also said, however, that if the project is
successful, it would be widely copied -- and it could mean that
studies that now take months or years could be done in weeks or even
"If we could use routine clinical care to generate new findings
without having to do multimillion-dollar studies, that would be a true
change in the way medical discovery is done," said Dr. Isaac Kohane,
an associate professor at Harvard Medical School who is one of the
project's directors. "We want to use the healthcare system as a living
All of the records -- from patients at Massachusetts General Hospital,
Brigham and Women's Hospital, and several Partners HealthCare
hospitals -- are protected by multiple layers of security designed to
prevent private medical information from being released, the
scientists said. None of the information will be sold, said John
Glaser, the project's other director, and the chief information
officer for Partners HealthCare.
Funding for the five-year I2B2 project began in the fall of 2004;
researchers are now getting the first hints of success and are forming
plans to contact patients.
The first study to be carried out under the project is an effort to
understand the genetic roots of asthma, which afflicts about 20
million Americans. For reasons that are not well understood, some
asthma patients do not respond well to the usual treatments and suffer
repeated, frightening attacks that send them to the emergency room,
said Dr. Scott Weiss, a scientist at the Channing Laboratory at
Brigham and Women's Hospital who is leading the asthma team.