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Data might not seem important in the way that organs are. People need organs just to stay alive, or to avoid being on dialysis for several hours a day. But medical data are also very valuable – even if they are not going to save someone’s life immediately. Why? Because medical research cannot take place without medical data, and the sad fact is that most people’s medical data are inaccessible for research once they are dead.

For example, working in shifts can be disruptive to one’s circadian rhythms. This is now thought by some to probably cause cancer. A large cohort study involving tens or hundreds of thousands of individuals could help us to investigate different aspects of shift work, including chronobiology, sleep impairment, cancer biology and premature aging. The results of such research could be very important for cancer prevention. However, any such study could currently be hamstrung by the inability to access and analyze participants’ data after they die.

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