The world’s largest biotechnology conference is underway in Atlanta this week, and a large delegation of Minnesotans have made the trip to represent the local industry. The scheduled presenters at BIO 2009 include scientists and doctors from 3M, IBM, the Mayo Clinic, Hormel Institute and University of Minnesota.
Last week I spoke with Drew Flaada, director of emerging solutions development for IBM, who is scheduled to talk about the company’s collaboration with Mayo and the U of M in Rochester.
“The work that’s being done in Rochester is unique and critical,” Flaada said.
IBM collaborates with many other organizations on health-care technology, Flaada said, but what makes Rochester unique is that the company’s campus is literally down the road from the Mayo Clinic. In a smaller city, the two large employers have had an opportunity to create a “third culture” between the companies.
Medical research in areas such as gene sequencing is generating huge amounts of data for health researchers, and maintaining and studying that data requires massive storage capacity and computing power.
“Not only do you have a lot of data to deal with, the computational requirements you’re dealing with are just incredibly complex,” Flaada said. “The mathematics behind these type of endeavors are tremendously huge… You have to be able to take these huge amounts of data and compare them with other data sets that are the same size.”
That’s where IBM comes in. It’s been collaborating with Mayo for nearly a decade, developing supercomputers that will let researchers mine health data for new knowledge. The advancement of supercomputers is allowing researchers to tackle calculations of a greater and greater scale, with less waiting around for the results.
One example: a researcher could take the genetic profiles of a group of patients with a certain disease, and then search to see if there’s a gene they have in common that might be a cause. But with billions of pieces of data included in a single gene sequence, the computers needed to run them are tens of thousands of times faster than what you’re probably reading this on.
IBM’s supercomputers are measured in petaflops. A computer with 1 petaflop of capacity can do a million billion calculations per second. That’s roughly equal to the strength of 140,000 laptop computers.
The volume of data available to researchers is growing, the speed of supercomputers is accelerating and the understanding of how to use computers for interpreting data is growing, Flaada said.
Those developments lead him to believe health-care research is on the cusp of something big.
“If you look at different areas of science, there are times when you can see definite inflection points, where the science changes,” Flaada said. “The rate of discovery, I believe, within the biosciences is going to hit this inflection point very soon that’s just going to be staggering as far as the amount of advancements.”
“These kinds of things happen maybe once in a lifetime, looking at it from a scientific standpoint,” he said. “This is extremely exciting and we really, I think, are on the ground floor of what’s taking place.”