The Mayo Clinic and UnitedHealth Group announced a new research institute Tuesday that will pool data on more than 110 million patients as part of an effort to help scientists study ways to improve medical care and lower costs.

The two Minnesota powerhouses said the project, called Optum Labs, could become health care's version of "Bell Labs," the 20th-century idea factory that sparked such innovations as the transistor and the laser.

"The way we think about it, we're building a first-class research facility," said Andy Slavitt, group executive vice president of Optum, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth.

The project is part of a growing movement in medicine to use vast amounts of patient data -- stripped of names -- to analyze what types of care work best over time.

That could include, for example, what kinds of medical devices work best in heart surgery or which diabetes treatments result in the best long-term outcomes.

Because treatments often vary widely from state to state and clinic to clinic, such research can shed light on which are most effective and help weed out less effective ones, officials say.

Dr. John Noseworthy, Mayo's president and CEO, called the project the "largest effort of this type in the country." He said it would help scientists see how patients fare over time, comparing treatments and outcomes.

"[It] allows us for the first time to truly examine best outcomes for patients at lower costs," Noseworthy said.

As part of the project, Mayo will provide data on more than 5 million patients. UnitedHealth, the nation's largest health insurer, will share its database of 109 million patients over the last two decades. All personal identifying information will be removed from the database to protect patient privacy.

But researchers will be able to conduct research comparing how various treatments worked on tens of thousands of patients with similar conditions.

They also will be pooling their expertise, said Mark Hayward, administrator of the Mayo Clinic's Center for the Science of Healthcare Delivery.

"Both Optum and Mayo have a long history of researching care delivery," he said. Ideally, he said, the new project will help speed up their research and "answer those questions more quickly."

By joining forces with Mayo, Slavitt said, Optum is taking a page from the legendary Bell Labs.

"They developed a reputation for attracting the best and the brightest by bringing together the kinds of resources that couldn't be found in other places," Slavitt said.

Gov. Mark Dayton released a statement calling the partnership "terrific news," adding that it "will lead to better and more cost-effective medical decisions, benefitting both patients and payers."

The research lab, located near the campus of MIT in Cambridge, Mass., is owned by UnitedHealth's Optum subsidiary, and is expected to have 60 employees by year's end. Company officials declined to say how much the project cost.

But Slavitt said it is not intended as a profit-making operation. Ultimately, they hope that other health care organizations will join in the research effort, and contribute their own patient data.

"We think this is just the start," he said. "The two of us conceived this effort, but by no means should we be doing this by ourselves."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384