On a TV screen near you: How are Virginia Tech and Microsoft accelerating cancer research?

10 March 2015 – 12 years later, the promise of the Human Genome Project (HGP) is finally being realised. The HGP – one of the largest international scientific research projects to determine the DNA sequence of the entire human genome – was successfully completed in April 2003. However it’s only now, with today’s powerful advances in computing technology, that the world of medicine is finally being transformed. Computer Science researchers at Virginia Tech university, led by Professor Wu Feng, are at the forefront of this transformation. Using Microsoft’s Cloud technologies they are attempting to find a cure for cancer by enabling physicians and oncologists to quickly and accurately analyse individuals’ DNA to better understand the disease and identify the most effective treatments and care paths. The work at Virginia Tech is currently being showcased in a UK TV advertising campaign.

Professor Feng quotes British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke by stating that, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This is where he believes the cloud is at today. In making this judgement, he highlights how it used to take two weeks to sequence a single genome, but now it’s possible to sequence hundreds in less than a day. Correspondingly, this process used to cost $95m, but is now just $6,000. Professor Feng and his team leveraged a pre-existing next-generation sequencing toolkit (Genome Analysis Toolkit), made it run faster with new software, and “cloudified” it using computing power from the Microsoft Azure cloud platform and HDInsight big data analysis tool. The result is called SeqInCloud (as in “Sequencing in the Cloud”). Rather than relying only on the wet lab to make discoveries, Virginia Tech is able to use validated computational models to simulate wet lab processes, in a fraction of the time, helping to aid scientific breakthroughs. By putting resources in the cloud, researchers can collaborate from any device, save time, and benefit from a more viable and cost-effective way to access necessary computational resources whenever and wherever they need to. As the future of patient care continues to be widely debated, the ability to use computing power to crunch and analyse large amounts of complex data about the genetic make-up of patients suffering from cancer, is accelerating the discovery of cures and new care paths, and making the possibility of personalised medicine a reality.