By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

The American Heart Association has hired its first data scientist dedicated to precision medicine, bolstering efforts by researchers and physicians to mine biological data in search of more precise approaches to treat and prevent heart disease and stroke.

Laura Stevens recently joined the growing American Heart Association Institute for Precision Cardiovascular Medicine, which is the only entity of its kind focused exclusively on cardiovascular diseases and stroke.

Stevens, a Ph.D. candidate in computational biology from the University of Colorado at Denver, brings experience in data science as well as chemical and biological engineering.

“I wanted the opportunity to change people’s lives, to use data to better treat disease and to help propel medical research forward,” she said.

“It is terrific to have the opportunity to build a team of data scientists here,” said Jennifer L. Hall, Ph.D., who heads the Institute. “Our goal is to do much of the heavy lifting for the researchers, thereby allowing them to focus on the science. Laura will play an important role in our reaching that goal.”

The AHA has funded more cardiovascular research than any organization outside the U.S. government. In recent years, the AHA also has been moving toward more cutting-edge research, including increased use of technology and precision medicine.

Precision medicine provides treatment strategies tailored to an individual based on genetics, environment and lifestyle. The goal is to focus on a person’s makeup rather than the average response to a medication or prevention tactic.

Stevens first developed a passion for data science when she began writing computer programs to help her analyze data on heart cells.

She heard about the Institute’s work while attending AHA’s Scientific Sessions in November. Soon after, she was involved in testing early versions of the AHA Precision Medicine Platform, which allows researchers and clinicians from around the globe to easily search, access and analyze millions of data sets online.

Stevens jumped at the opportunity to work on the platform. She’s committed to maintaining the security measures of the platform, which is powered by Amazon Web Services, because it’s important to educate users and instill confidence in the platform.

“Security is important, and the American Heart Association and Amazon Web Services are highly committed to providing a secure system for all users of the platform,” she said.

Even with all the safety measures in place, the platform is touted as a powerful tool that is still accessible enough to ensure an open scientific exchange for scientists around the world. It’s also designed to be easy to navigate, and Stevens hopes to help many researchers sift through data to identify and pursue the most useful information using nearly 70 computational tools.

For example, finding the most important risk factors for a person is difficult because complex conditions such as heart disease have a variety of risks. Understanding and prioritizing these factors can be like looking for a needle in a dozen haystacks. However, data science allows researchers to match a patient’s information against millions of medical records to narrow the search.

“There may be early risk factors that we do not even understand today,” Stevens said. “And with the potential to link data to clinicians electronically, information can be translated to the patient that is lifesaving. This has the potential to change the way we diagnose and treat patients.”

Gabriel Musso has been exploring the platform since the beta version went online in March.

“I’ve been using it to evaluate and process large research files, running analyses, summarizing the data sets and creating visuals,” said Musso, vice president life sciences for Toronto-based data analytics firm BioSymetrics. “It’s very useful for what I do, and I know Laura will be successful in making it an even more powerful resource.”

The platform, which launched in 2016 and officially opened in July, houses more than 36 million records.

“I’d encourage researchers thinking about using the platform to get involved, to go online and check it out, see what’s available and let us know what you need and how we can improve it,” Stevens said. “It’s just beginning and there is so much potential to create and build an environment that changes the way we collaborate and conduct research. To be part of the change, please go to precision.heart.org.”