Big data for Thanksgiving

Got up late, went for a run, helped get things ready for Thanksgiving, ate a TON, and watched a bit of football, all with the entire Nolan West clan in attendance*. Not a bad way to spend my favorite holiday!

Before I doze off again, I wanted to share a quick story from yesterday at work that illustrates just how awesome Adaptive is, and why I am thankful to be part of it. “Big data” at Adaptive isn’t just empty marketing; it’s a tool we use to help real people in incredibly concrete ways.

One of my goals for early in 2015 is to help scale up clonoSEQ, our diagnostic test that helps detect relapse in blood cancer patients. As part of planning this, I checked in with our Director of Translational Medicine to understand the work he does to develop the narrative “interpretations” that accompany the numeric results of these tests.

As with many types of tests, we use thresholds to understand what is meaningful vs. not. In a very rough way, if a particular clone makes up more than 5% of a patient’s immune repertoire, we believe it’s a diagnostic marker for their cancer. When numbers are way higher or lower than this, life is easy. But what about when they’re bouncing right around the cutoff?

We know that there are some sequences that show up in many different people at relatively higher concentrations, just because they’re “easier” for the body to make (less mutation, etc.). Further, repertoires can fluctuate for lots of common reasons that we never even notice. So when we see these borderline sequences, they very well could be signal OR noise.

We use lots of tools to make these distinctions. But one that is incredibly cool is — effectively in real time, we can search the billions of sequences we have seen in the real world to understand if a borderline sequence has been seen in other patients. If it has, odds are high that the sequence is unrelated to their cancer.

Think about that for a second. We’re creating both the technology and the data sets to determine not just what ONE immune system looks like, but thousands and millions. Armed with this information we can start to detect population-level patterns and understand mechanisms that nobody has ever had the remotest chance of seeing before. And that means better diagnostics and treatments in the real world.

So this year, I’m thankful to be a part of a new company that is helping real people in amazing ways.

And of course, for my wicked awesome new nephew Asher!

Hope you all have a great holiday.

* Hmm, now that Ben, Kelly and Asher are in Boulder, does that mean “Nolan West” has new citizens? Still strictly on the wrong side of the Divide, but it’s pretty close. Will have to think on this.

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