Cloud Computing and Biomedical Research

The possibilities of cloud computing in medicine were highlighted several months ago, when the technology was called into action to keep the Ebola outbreak under control. Cloud is lightning-fast at processing data, so it isn’t just helpful in disasters but in expediting research to treat and prevent illnesses.

Ebola outbreak – cloud called into action

One of the biggest tools we now have to fight the spread of disease is big data software run through cloud servers that integrate information from mobile devices. Looking at huge pools of data allows public health officials to better understand how Ebola is spreading in West Africa so that the outbreak can be contained, for instance. After all, the World Bank has estimated the direct financial hit of the Ebola outbreak at $500 million.

Here’s the great news: unlike the Haiti earthquake recovery efforts and other disastrous responses to widescale tragedies, the international response to the Ebola epidemic seems to have actually been effective. The rate of infection is descending.

“Last September the U.S. Centers for Disease Control predicted that the number of people infected could hit 1.4 million if substantial behavioral changes in Sierra Leone and Liberia do not occur,” noted Bright Simons of the Brookings Institution. “Happily, these predictions have so far failed to materialize.”

As of January, the death toll was not nearly as catastrophic as the CDC’s early forecast:

  • Liberia – 8577 infections resulting in 3694 deaths by January 25, 2015;
  • Sierra Leone – 8015 infections resulting in 2859 deaths by January 29, 2015.

Plus, insiders have generally agreed since February that the number of reported cases would begin to plummet by the summer.

The cloud is certainly realizing its extraordinary potential through projects such as these, which are more common now that security is more advanced and healthcare-exclusive clouds are available.

Cloud powering biomedical research

Cloud technology can also be used in diagnostics, to better understand patient medical images by comparing them to a vast library of samples. Cloud doesn’t just have the power to fight epidemics and identify illnesses, though. It can also be used by biomedical researchers to better refine their analysis of particular health conditions.

For medical facilities run by universities, the scalability of the cloud is phenomenal. The technology gives individuals conducting studies the ability to research more efficiently and affordably, without the confusing requirement to correctly estimate upcoming resource demands.

“There really is an economy of scale to putting together thousands and thousands of processors and terabytes or petabytes of data,” said Marcos Athanasoulis, former head of research computing at Harvard Medical School. “So having access to the cloud is definitely accelerating the pace of research.”

Cloud is generally considered a perfect match for biomedical researchers. It allows organizations to gather, store, and analyze big data through apps that are often built and fine-tuned through the cloud as well. As essentially a complex form of cluster computing, cloud allows professionals the ability to build simulations out of gigantic datasets on a case-by-case basis.

Cloud gives researchers the resources they need for faster processing of hefty images, allowing them to notice similarities between different brain images. Genomic data is now being analyzed through the cloud, a project of the National Institutes of Health. That same agency is building a Cloud Commons for biomedical research.

HIPAA compliance is of course fundamental in all these efforts, so organizations turn to cloud providers specializing in healthcare for any projects that could risk exposure of protected health information.

Virtualizing the supercomputer

The cloud has drastically lowered the cost of entry to run huge projects. Now data analysts and medical scientists are able to conduct extraordinarily complex research immediately, without the need to access a supercomputer.

Geoffrey C. Fox, PhD, who runs the Digital Science Center at Indiana University, said that typically supercomputer capabilities have been associated with huge parallel computing networks. Biomedical researchers may need the strength of supercomputers, but they don’t need a supercomputer specifically. Dr. Fox believes that cloud is usually a better setting for biomedical research.

The flexibility of cloud to respond to immediate need is one of its core attributes, according to Fox. “With computing on demand, if you need 1,000 computers to analyze your data, clouds offer that,” he said. And I think there is every reason to believe that clouds are cheaper than other forms of computing.” He added that cloud’s essentially unlimited capacity – it can always look to another physical server in its network for help – allows the virtual machines to outpace supercomputers, which often have backlogs of data awaiting processing.

Cloud with healthcare expertise

Biomedical researchers are often concerned about cloud due to security, with high profile hacks showcasing the increasing threats from health fraud crime rings. When you need an ultra-secure, HIPAA-compliant cloud, turn to the HealthDATA™ Cloud Computing Platform, the only healthcare-exclusive cloud in the world.

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