The town of Framingham, Mass., should get a "global standing ovation" for what it has contributed to our knowledge of heart disease, says healthcare consultant Brian McGowan at The Scientist's opinion column. The 1948 Framingham Heart Study, the follow-up 1971 FHS Offspring study, and the 2002 third-generation study are observational, and all data is collected in a huge database that's shared among researchers and physicians. The shared data has answered a lot of questions about risk factors for heart disease and has been used to answer questions the study's original designers didn't even think to ask, McGowan says. "But more than any of these individual insights, there is a greater lesson to be learned from the FHS: large-scale collection and sharing of healthcare data can go a long way towards advancing our understanding of health and disease, and sometimes it can answer questions we didn't even know we had," he adds.
Some would argue, McGowan says, for a widespread "public laboratory" model of research where small pilot public health research studies are conducted, and the data collected and shared among a wider community of researchers. In his opinion, such a public model may not be possible right now, as issues of ethics and privacy need to be solved. But in two or three years, he adds, that possibility may emerge.