June 9, 2016

GA4GH presents vision, model for genomic and clinical data sharing

Global Alliance for Genomics and Health

TORONTO, CANADA (June 9, 2016) — In today’s Science, the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health (GA4GH) calls for a federated data ecosystem for sharing genomic and clinical data. The authorship, which includes Canadian leaders as well as a diverse team of international leaders in academia, research, medicine, and industry, argues that a common framework of principles, protocols, and interoperable technical systems are necessary to enable responsible and effective data sharing.

A federated data ecosystem is beneficial because it connects various similar databases into an interoperable system with a uniform user interface, while still allowing each database to remain autonomous and geographically distinct. Users can therefore access and share data more easily and perform important research more efficiently without requiring all data to be housed in one database.

GA4GH was established in 2013 to bring the community together to build the tools and establish the standards needed for responsible and effective data sharing. Today, it counts more than 400 organizations and more than 700 individuals in its membership, which spans more than 70 countries. “These stakeholders are working together across traditional boundaries to create the common framework that will allow us to make best use of the millions of genome sequences that currently sit in siloed databases around the globe,” says Peter Goodhand, Executive Director of GA4GH and Interim President of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research.

To date, GA4GH has created a toolkit of diverse products, including the Genomics API, which allows disparate technology services to exchange genotypic and phenotypic data, as well as the Framework for Responsible Sharing of Genomic and Health Related Data, which outlines the basic principles and core elements for responsible data sharing. GA4GH has also catalyzed the development of three data sharing projects which aim to illustrate the value of sharing data in real world contexts. These consist of (i) an open-ended approach to discovering genomic data across the Internet (the Beacon Project), (ii) an international collaboration among breast cancer genetics experts (the BRCA Challenge), and (iii) a peer-to-peer network of rare disease researchers and clinicians (Matchmaker Exchange).

In addition to outlining successes, the paper notes a variety of remaining challenges to sharing data across national and institutional boundaries. For example, the membership is currently working on solutions to secure data access while maximizing the scope of information that can be shared, to create tools that are flexible enough to be readily implemented in different knowledge domains, and to establish sustainable funding models that support data curation, hosting, and computation.

Canada plays a central role in GA4GH. In addition to Goodhand’s role as Executive Director of GA4GH, the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research is one of three Host Institutions for GA4GH (along with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute). Thirty-two of the Global Alliance’s organizational members and 45 individual members are Canadian. Additionally, in December 2015 Genome Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) announced Can-SHARE, a pan-Canadian program that will help to rapidly advance the objectives of GA4GH in Canada and will be instrumental in implementing GA4GH initiatives nationwide.

“Private funders and national governments will need to be involved on some level to support these activities so that clinicians and scientists may access as much free, curated data as possible,” says Mike Stratton, Director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, CEO of the Wellcome Genome Campus, and a member of the GA4GH Strategic Advisory Board. “The Sanger Institute has supported the Global Alliance since its inception as we are committed to helping researchers and clinicians access and freely share the genomic and related health data they need to transform human health.”

“Millions of genome sequences are being generated around the globe, but to gain the full benefits from these data — to advance human health and to prevent and treat disease — laboratory and clinical investigators will need more effective means of access to data, regardless of where the data are stored,” said Professor Harold Varmus of Weill Cornell Medical College, former Director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute, and Chair of the GA4GH Scientific Advisory Board. “The only way to do that is for the global community to come together across traditional boundaries — be they national, institutional, or technical — to create a federated ecosystem that works for everyone. The GA4GH has begun to do that in the projects described in this new report.”


The Global Alliance for Genomics and Health is an international, non-profit alliance formed to accelerate the potential of genomic medicine to advance human health. Bringing together over 400 leading organizations working in healthcare, research, disease and patient advocacy, life science, and information technology, GA4GH Members are working together to create a common framework of tools, methods, and harmonized approaches and supporting demonstration projects to enable the responsible, voluntary, and secure sharing of genomic and clinical data.


Rhea Cohen

Email: rhea.cohen@oicr.on.ca

Telephone: 416-673-6642

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