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Global Genomics Harmony

It was a big week for big genomics data enthusiasts, as the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health kicked off with a London meeting at the Wellcome Trust that was attended by representatives from over 150 organizations.

The alliance, or GA4GH, wants to harmonize genomic data standards and practices to make it more useful and more secure so that more people can use it in more applications.

The group also welcomed a new member this week, as a little-known outfit called Google said it will join the project, and it is tinkering with an early version of an application program interface called Google Genomics data to support genomic analysis.

The alliance said this week it has launched four working groups focused on representing and analyzing genomics data, security, regulations and ethics, and clinical best practices.

The Broad Institute's David Altshuler, who serves on the alliance's steering committee, told Nature this week that the project is a response to this "very important moment in history," in which a wide range of types and massive volumes of data can be collected and paired with clinical information.

Altshuler said the alliance's stakeholders were brought together to discuss "the most pressing problems" to be addressed, such as the need for APIs like the one Google is working on.

Although there are some public concerns about how big genomics data might be used, such as worries in the UK about that country's planned databank of genomic data from the NHS, Altshuler admitted, he thinks the public also needs to know that "there are real benefits" to genomic medicine. Kids with rare genetic diseases may not be able to get a diagnosis, and cancer patients may be able to find out if a drug will work based on their tumor type, he said. These are the benefits of genomics and big genomic data analysis.

He said the alliance has identified "a small number of high-priority goals" to pursue this year, and that it also plans to expand into more countries and to engage more with disease advocacy organizations and the public.