The HARMONY project: learning to work in BIG (DATA) teams

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The HARMONY project: learning to work in BIG (DATA) teams

By Anna Kabanova PhD, YoungEHA committee member

On 26 and 27 September 2019 several YoungEHA members, including myself, had the chance to participate in the 4th General Assembly of the HARMONY Alliance (1) which took place in Florence, Italy. HARMONY is a public-private partnership for big data in hematology consisting of more than 90 organizations and is funded by the Innovative Medicines Initiative (2). The HARMONY Big Data Platform, one of the largest of its kind in the field of hematology, has been created in order to bridge hematologists and data scientists that, in a collective effort, seek to share data.  By 2019, 45,000 data sets had been identified and HARMONY is aiming for 100,000 by 2021.

HARMONY YoungEHA blog image 1

Currently there are HARMONY big data research projects focused on seven major hematological disorders: acute lymphoblastic leukemia, acute myeloid leukemia, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, myelodysplastic syndromes, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and pediatric hematological malignancies (1). The key outstanding advantage of the big data platform in hematology research is to address the questions that can only be answered by studying large patient cohorts (3-5). By characterizing the molecular landscape of malignancies and digging deeper into their molecular pathogenesis, researchers can identify novel drug targets and reliably predict disease course and therapy response in patients, ultimately transforming this knowledge into better cures and better life quality for patients.

The General Assembly was organized to discuss the developments of the HARMONY projects between participants, including scientists actively involved in ongoing projects from associated institutions, pharma partners and patient representatives. Along with the insightful “update” section of the meeting where project leaders shared their developments with the audience, the meeting had a multi-disciplinary aspect to it due to a dedicated session on artificial intelligence (AI) and related ethical aspects, featuring prominent experts in the field. This inclusion provided the audience, which was composed mostly of biomedical researchers and clinicians, with an opportunity to revisit AI and, in my case, to acquire a good basic overview of the process of biomedical data processing and analysis.

HARMONY YoungEHA blog image 2

Importantly, and quite unexpectedly based on my expectations of such meetings, the HARMONY General Assembly provided participants with an opportunity to design new big data projects. This process was based on unconventional brainstorming scenarios which were set up in a ‘research-a-thon’ format. This format aims to create an informal brainstorming session where new projects are drafted by several teams of scientists. Results of this developmental phase were further consolidated by project presentation to the HARMONY board, with the purpose of evaluating projects and deciding whether they should join the HARMONY portfolio, thus allowing the implementation of ideas into solid actions.

Project design sessions were organized into two principal steps. First, assembly participants were divided into working groups, each focused on a particular disease type. I was involved as scientific support in the CLL ‘research-a-thon’. The brainstorming session was guided by Paolo Ghia, one of the leads of the CLL-centered HARMONY projects and a member of the European Research Initiative on CLL (ERIC) (6). The group started with a discussion on the unmet clinical needs in CLL and several potential projects, some of which have been pre-established by the HARMONY board and also others representing ideas that were generated spontaneously during the ‘research-a-thon’. As soon as the priority project was defined, we dissected its structure step by step in group discussions, by defining the major aim of the project, its content, goals and milestones, working team and impact. After several hours of brainstorming, all particularities were lined up and revisited in a presentation.

The second step of the project design, which took place the following day, involved the leaders of the ‘research-a-thons’ presenting project proposals to the HARMONY board, partners and associate members. In total, five new HARMONY projects were presented and are prospected for launch in the first half of 2020. You can read more about them at

As a YoungEHA member, I found this experience inspiring. The ‘research-a-thon’ format was very interactive and certainly very suitable for establishing a creative non-formal atmosphere which primed an open interaction among researchers and a burst of ideas and opinions were exchanged. This type of collective brainstorming could be translated into laboratory meetings and to any other situation where a research question or a problem is going to be tackled.


  1. HARMONY Research Projects
  2. Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI)
  3. HARMONY Big Data Platform
  4. Explanatory HARMONY videos explaining Big Data in Hematology
  5. HARMONY article: HARMONY: Next-generation science: Sharing data and knowledge
  6. HARMONY Research Project: Harnessing big data to predict prognosis in Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia
Last Updated on Tuesday 03 March 2020.