Woo Center for Big Data and Precision Health Established at Duke Engineering

Xiling Shen, Ph.D.
GCB News

Woo Center for Big Data and Precision Health Established at Duke Engineering

Three-year, $3+ million commitment to foster global partnerships to advance research and education at the intersection of data and health care

A new center at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering will harness the power of big data to improve health care on a global scale. The Sherry and John Woo Center for Big Data and Precision Health, launched this month with more than $3 million in funding over three years from philanthropist and biotech industry executive John Woo, will support research projects, educational experiences and entrepreneurship opportunities for Duke faculty and students in collaboration with clinical and industry partners worldwide.

Today, biomedical imaging and sensing technologies are gathering real-time health data at an unprecedented pace. Powerful computers can probe the complexity of entire genomes, and electronic recordkeeping offers new opportunities to analyze population-level disease patterns and issues in clinical care delivery.  Across Duke, faculty and students are developing innovative data science, machine learning and digital health modeling approaches to transform this data into actionable health insights.

“Big data, analytics and machine learning are changing our world significantly, and nowhere will the change be more significant and meaningful than in health care,” said Ravi V. Bellamkonda, Vinik Dean of Engineering at Duke. “Duke Engineering and Duke Health are collaboratively leading this change, and the Woo Center will help catalyze this further by coordinating new partnerships, expanding access to diverse, well-curated datasets and fueling transformative research ideas in this space.”

Through the Woo Center, Duke faculty will have new opportunities to work with hospitals, government agencies, biotech companies and other organizations worldwide to expand the impact of data-driven health research. The center will focus initially in China, where efforts are under way to develop a national network of high-tech health data parks to improve clinical care and care delivery, particularly in rural regions.

“Big data and precision medicine have the potential to vastly improve human health, and Duke has a special role to play with its unique combination of strengths in data science and machine learning, biomedical engineering and medicine—our faculty are world leaders in each of these areas,” said Larry Carin, vice provost for research at Duke. “Through new partnerships in China and around the world, we hope to address pressing medical issues in emerging markets and reduce disparities to improve global health.”

Each year, the center will award pilot grants up to $150,000 each to Duke faculty to explore new ideas for collaborative research projects in big data and health.  It will also hold an annual symposium, alternating between the Duke campus and international locations, to highlight significant research and foster a global community of health data science researchers.

With a focus on international collaborations, the Woo Center will complement existing initiatives such as The Forge, Duke University’s center for data health science, according to campus leaders. “Faculty and students across Duke are working to bridge the gap between health information and actual clinical practice,” said Dr. Robert Califf, vice chancellor for health data science and director of Duke Forge. “Ultimately, our mission is to translate data-driven insights into more effective care and better health for individuals and communities at home and around the world, and we welcome opportunities to advance those efforts.”

The center will also provide a home for the growing number of Duke engineering students interested in the intersection of health care and big data, said Xiling Shen, the Hawkins Family Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering (BME) and director of the new center.  Shen is also spearheading the launch this fall of a new master’s-level curriculum in biomedical and health data sciences offered through Duke BME in partnership with the Duke Institute for Health Innovation (DIHI).

In addition to coordinating research opportunities, the center plans to sponsor international exchanges and internships for Duke students, as well as encourage global entrepreneurship in health data through sponsoring business plan and pitch competitions, seed funding and networking events.

“Duke is already at the forefront of bringing big data and precision medicine into clinical practice,” said Shen. “We’re excited about the opportunities this new center will open for our faculty and students to build productive new collaborations with clinicians and biotech companies to make an impact for patients.”

 For more information, visit healthdata.pratt.duke.edu.

Story originally published by Pratt School of Engineering

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