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Medical researchers use the cloud to do what they couldn’t before

June 19, 2015, 2:55 PM UTC


In 2003, a team of researchers working for the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health completed a 13-year long effort called the Human Genome Project. The goal of the project was, among other things, to identify and map every gene in human DNA. For a while, the scientific community has been looking at the data and wondering, "So, what's next?" One answer is targeted therapy, medical treatments that do not only address symptoms, but also respond to a patient's genetic makeup. The past couple of years have yielded breakthroughs in this field. In 2011, a team of scientists at the University of Pennsylvania effectively treated leukemia patients by engineering their own white blood cells to fight the disease. Also in 2011, researchers in Britain achieved promising results in treating the genetic disease hemophilia B by injecting patients with a re-engineered version of the gene. 2012 brought even more advancements, using targeted therapy to treat inherited blindness. "Talk about transforming an industry," says George Day, co-director of the Mack Center at Wharton. "Big Pharma has always been pill-based," he says, meaning patients need daily dosage, whereas "gene therapy is one and done. "I think finally after 20 years, the promise of gene therapy is starting to be realized."
Illustration: Alfred Pasieka/Getty Images

Cloud computing—and the ability it gives researchers to quickly add and shut down resources as needed—means that they can do massive number crunching that researchers could not have dreamed of in the past.

That’s probably one reason that Matthew Trunnell will upgrade legacy software at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to rely more on the cloud, according to the the Wall Street Journal. Trunnell, who is now CIO of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., will join Hutchinson as CIO in a few months.

Trunnell cited cloud computing as a way to advance “precision medicine” which is the practice of sequencing the genome of tumors and applying big data analytics to improve care.

The real key here is that the advent of huge web-scale computational capability—applying tens of thousands of computer nodes to a problem— brings supercomputer-like power to bear on very tough problems. In the past researchers who needed that sort of heavy-lifting had to sign up for time at one of the nation’s supercomputing centers. And then they waited, for weeks if not months. That’s clearly not optimal in for a specialty that wants to work fast and iteratively on tough problems.

Cycle Computing, which makes software that manages research applications so they can run across clouds, sees a lot of these applications moving to the cloud up close and personal.

“Every day, we witness engineers and scientists benefit from limitless access to compute, thanks to cloud,” said Cycle CEO Jason Stowe. “Steve Litster’s team at Novartis ran 40 years of cancer drug simulation in 8 hours, for thousands of dollars instead of millions. The critical value of cloud [computing] is not saving dollars, it is enabling researchers to do things they couldn’t do before.”

Litster is global lead for high-performance and scientific computing for the Novartis (NVSEF) Institutes for Biomedical Research

There are other examples of cloud computing being put to use in big projects, one being Autism Speaks’ use of Google(GOOG) Cloud for its genomic research.

Trunnell said the Broad Institute is testing Amazon(AMZN) and Google clouds now, and he plans to talk to those companies, as well as Microsoft(MSFT), when he starts his new job.

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