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Cambridge clinician wins funding to safely link big datasets to help find medical answers

Cambridge researchers are to trial methods of analysing data across more than one secure research environment – something which has previously not been possible, but which could be of great benefit to the public once established.

Honorary Consultant in Clinical Genetics at Cambridge University Hospitals (CUH), Professor Serena Nik-Zainal, will lead a team in carrying out this work, which has received funding of £200K from UK Research and Innovation as part of the DARE UK (opens in a new tab) (Data and Analytics Research Environments UK) programme.

I am really excited to start this work. It aims to highlight the advantages of being able to work with data from more than one research environment and set new standards in the field of data sharing.

Professor Serena Nik-Zainal
Serena Nik-Zainal
Professor Serena Nik-Zainal

Trusted research environments are secure spaces for researchers to access and analyse sensitive data; they help prevent unauthorised access and re-identification of individuals from anonymised data. However, the ability for researchers to analyse data between two such environments is also not currently possible which can delay new discoveries.

This project will bridge the gap between the Genomics England (opens in a new tab) and the NIHR Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre (opens in a new tab) data. Both contain rich, secure, governed sources of fully consented clinical genomic data from patients.

After looking within the data from both research environments to find individuals with certain characteristics, a joint analysis will be run within both environments, and the results combined in a separate secure cloud environment. This means that no original data will move, only the results.

The ability for trusted research environments to ‘talk’ is known as a federation or federated learning.

I hope that it will unlock unprecedented possibilities for collaborations across the UK and lead to new discoveries with long term public benefit.

Professor Serena Nik-Zainal

The work has been approved as a Sprint Exemplar Project as part of Phase 1 of the DARE UK programme, which is delivered in partnership Health Data Research UK (HDR UK) (opens in a new tab) and Administrative Data Research UK (ADR UK) (opens in a new tab).

A short video clip can be viewed here. (opens in a new tab)