Big data creates new potential for heart research

12 February 2020

Johan Sundström, cardiologist and professor of epidemiology at Uppsala University.

Uppsala University is investing in a new environment within cardiovascular research based on data from large scale population registries and biobanks. “My ambition is that in five years we have identified new triggering factors for myocardial infarctions,” says Johan Sundström, cardiologist and professor of epidemiology at Uppsala University.

Sweden is a country with unique potential for medical big data research. This is thanks to the patient information in medical registries that cover the entire population and a long tradition of large cohort studies with voluntary test subjects who have been followed for decades.

Thanks to a donation from Åland businessman Anders Wiklöf, a new research environment is being developed and will be called the Anders Wiklöf Institute of Cardiac Research. The institute will be led by Johan Sundström, cardiologist and professor of epidemiology at Uppsala University.
“This is a decisive opportunity to establish a focused and large-scale research initiative on cardiovascular diseases with the goal of being better able to predict and avoid them. My ambition is that in five years, we have identified new triggering factors for myocardial infarctions, and contributing factors for cardiovascular diseases, and thereby be able to predict and avoid them,” says Johan Sundström.

Experts within several disciplines

Utilising the enormous amounts of data that this research is based on requires both extensive processing by experts in several disciplines and new analytical methods, including artificial intelligence (AI). Another prerequisite is that storage and accessibility meet the strict requirements for security and accuracy.
“In Sweden there is a long tradition of large population cohort studies with voluntary test subjects who have been followed for decades. Internationally leading medical registries have covered the entire population much longer than in most other countries. Here, we have single-payer universal health care. And we were also early to introduce medical records,” says Sundström.

Coordinated population cohort studies

Over the last decade, Johan Sundström has led a national initiative to coordinate all of Sweden’s population cohort studies, with the goal of enabling internationally leading cardiovascular research (www.cohorts.se). In a pilot study, he has coordinated 21 Swedish cohort studies that have included nearly one million Swedes. This has allowed the discovery of new causes of subarachnoid haemorrhaging – an unusual but serious type of stroke.
In another study (www.mimistudy.se), he has coordinated and collected blood samples from several large European cohort studies, and he is currently studying molecules that can be used to discover an imminent myocardial infarction months before it occurs.
“This research had been impossible without the big data methods that have been developed. With these studies, we have determined the major administrative obstacles to research and found ways of moving forward.”