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Research: Using ‘big data’ to help understand Multiple Sclerosis

1044 Days ago

Investigators launch study to understand mysterious disease


Multiple sclerosis is a difficult disease to treat because its cause is unknown.

“MS is challenging to manage because there are no biomarkers or blood tests to diagnose or understand the individual patient’s prognosis and his or her likely response to medications,” says Joanna Cooper, M.D., a Sutter neurologist and MS clinician-investigator. “We know that disease course and presentation of symptoms vary by gender, age, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity. But we don’t know which treatment would be optimal for which patients, and why.”

To better understand MS disease progression and to develop more precise ways to diagnose and manage the illness in individual patients, not-for-profit Sutter Health is teaming up with DNAnexus—a biomedical informatics and data management company. The collaboration with DNAnexus may help to accelerate Sutter’s MS precision medicine research by making it easier for clinician-researchers to analyze clinical and genetic data quickly, securely, and economically. 

When it comes to cracking the case of MS—the potentially disabling immunologic disease of the central nervous system that affects almost one million people in the U.S.—Sutter’s Center for Precision Medicine is working to increase the pace of medical discoveries to improve care through uniquely personalized treatment.

“A more precise understanding of the disease and the ability to predict a milder disease course versus rapid decline would help us prescribe safer, more effective treatments in individual patients,” says Dr. Cooper.

Through this work, researchers at Sutter are hoping to recruit more than 500 MS patients for the first phase of a new study designed to collect clinical data, patient-reported outcomes, and blood samples for whole exome sequencing. Gregory Tranah, Ph.D., Director of Sutter’s Center for Precision Medicine, Dr. Cooper, and other Sutter researchers will study patients’ clinical data and blood samples in order to identify patterns that may provide insight into  MS subtypes, disability progression, staging, symptoms, MRI changes and differential response to disease-modifying therapies (DMTs).

Anonymized data sets will be hosted on the DNAnexus Platform, enabling rapid analysis, visualization and collaboration. Study participants will be followed for five years and monitored every 12 months. 

“Large datasets, generated in a real-world setting, may help Sutter to advance MS research worldwide,” says Dr. Tranah. “Our collaboration with DNAnexus will allow us to access cutting-edge bioinformatics tools to understand clinically meaningful ‘big data’ collected in a large healthcare system. This is an important step to help advance precision medicine efforts across Sutter and, ultimately, to improve treatments and patient health in our communities and worldwide.”

For people with MS like Helen Solinski, one of the approximately 3,000 MS patients receiving care within Sutter Health’s not-for-profit, integrated health network, research may unlock discoveries that can help provide patients with targeted treatments.

“For many MS patients, existing drugs are minimally effective. As the disease progresses, little by little you lose yourself to the illness,” says Ms. Solinski. “Precision medicine research at Sutter is potentially game changing for the field of MS.  We know so little about this mysterious disease, so new information could mean a paradigm shift in how we diagnose and treat it.”

Dr. Tranah adds that it’s patients like Helen and the communities Sutter serves who remain the focal point of this precision medicine study. “As we continue this work, we are grateful for our partnership with patients and the trust we have built around the safety and security of their personal and medical information. We are committed to safeguarding this relationship.”


  1. National Multiple Sclerosis Society, 2019.

Monique Binkley Smith
Sutter Health

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