SAN FRANCISCO — When Dr. Atul Butte thinks data, the word “big” can’t do it justice. He was honored by President Barack Obama’s administration as an “open science champion of change” in 2013 for his work at Stanford University to sift 400 trillion molecular, clinical, and epidemiological data points to find new medicines and disease-fighting insights — and to speed the process by making the data as public as possible.
Butte moved to the University of California, San Francisco in 2015 to head its Institute for Computational Health Sciences. He has launched a program, partly funded by a $10 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, to combine the records of 15 million patients across the UC system’s major medical campuses. He’s also working with a new public-private consortium trying to use big data to slash sharply the time it takes to find new drugs.
Before arriving out West — where Butte cofounded three data-driven companies and wrote software for Apple and Microsoft — he trained for his M.D. and Ph.D. at Brown, Harvard, and MIT. STAT caught up with the buoyant, open-data evangelist at the World Conference of Science Journalists to hear his hopeful views of the future of drug development, and found that he wasn’t shy about casting doubt on an ambitious Silicon Valley precision-medicine effort.