For more than a decade, University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers have tracked hundreds of state residents with a family history of Alzheimer’s disease, collecting information about everything from their dietary and exercise habits to what’s inside their brains, blood and genes.
Now the researchers and a private Madison company have formed a joint venture called Swoop-Med LLC that will use sophisticated computer programs to mine the hundreds of thousands of data points the project has generated for clues that could help produce diagnostic tools and treatments.
The new venture is by no means alone. Around the world, companies and researchers are realizing the potential hidden inside the burgeoning volumes of data they’ve been collecting and the power that modern computing technology has to unwrap it.
“In general, people are not able to understand this data or discover important new associations just by looking at it,” said Mark Craven, a biomedical informatics professor at UW-Madison who is not involved in Swoop-Med. “Sophisticated computational and statistical tools are needed to gain insight and predictive models from it.”
Craven runs one of the National Institutes of Health’s centers for big data computing, part of the agency’sBig Data to Knowledge initiative. The NIH plans to invest nearly $656 million in the initiative through 2020 to speed development of the data analytics field by funding the creation of “hardware and software that can store, retrieve, and analyze this mountain of complex data — and transform it into knowledge that can improve our understanding of human health and disease,” as Francis Collins, the agency’s director, said on his blog.
Swoop-Med has a similar mission. It wants to give researchers easy-to-use tools for testing hypotheses and exploring big data sets without having to pull in a data scientist at every turn, said Paul Bottum, the company’s chief executive officer. Bottum, a Minnesota resident and former hedge fund manager, attended UW-Madison.
“Our program allows researchers to tease out relationships, looking for hidden patterns in the data sets,” Bottum said.
Swoop-Med is a joint venture between the University of Wisconsin School of Public Health and another company run by Bottum, Swoop Search LLC. Swoop Search holds three patents covering a program that makes database computer searches more user-friendly. Earlier this year, the company raised $2 million from outside investors, according to a filing with federal securities regulators. Swoop Search will complete the funding round early next year with another $2.5 million, Bottum said.
The new venture’s first customer will be the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention, which has been running a project since 2001 that has had more than 1,500 participants. About 70% of the participants have a parent with Alzheimer’s. The other 30% are in a control group with no family history of Alzheimer’s, said Sterling Johnson, director of the project.
“We hope to more quickly uncover relationships in the data that may lead to new ways to diagnose and treat Alzheimer’s patients,” said Richard L. Moss, senior associate dean of the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. “The disease changes the brain about 20 years or more ahead of symptom onset. Someone destined to get symptoms in their 60s may already be harboring the disease in their brain.”
Swoop-Med wants to expand its market to other data sets and other academic institutions, then possibly to biotech and pharmaceutical companies, Bottum said.
Swoop-Med said it has raised $385,000 from the Wisconsin Innovation Initiative Seed Fund, a fund formed with $500,000 from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and $500,000 from Wisconsin Innovation Initiative, a nonprofit formed to support the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. Swoop-Med is the first investment the seed fund has made, said Kurt Zimmerman, chief financial officer.
“We have a public health issue that needs to be addressed in this country and the state,” said Lisa Johnson, WEDC vice president for entrepreneurship. “We are acting now…to support the outstanding research taking place at UW-Madison to move it into commercialization and potentially prevent or treat Alzheimer’s in the coming years.”
The incidence of Alzheimer’s, which afflicts mostly older people, is projected to grow dramatically in coming decades. An estimated 119,900 state residents had dementia in 2010, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. That number is expected to increase by 68% to 201,600 in 2035, the department projects.
Yet, Alzheimer’s has been a vexing disease for researchers seeking treatments. Roche, one of the largest drug developers, said last week it was shutting down a late-stage clinical trial of gantenerumab, an experimental Alzheimer’s drug, because it didn’t show sufficient signs that it worked for patients.
The disappointment was one more in a long list of failures, including attempts by other big drug-makers, like Eli Lilly and Johnson & Johnson, to treat the disease.
Bringing data analytics to the problem has the potential to remedy that.
“It’s given people tools for seeing the world through different and more clear perspectives based on actual data,” said Jay Bayne, executive director of the Milwaukee Institute, a nonprofit that promotes high-performance computing. “And it’s changing the world.”