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How Computer Clouds Help Fight Cancer

August 15, 2013 No Comments

Cloud computing can help a business run more efficiently, allow an end user to access information while on the go and, perhaps most importantly, help researchers battle cancer.

The National Cancer Institute plans to sponsor three pilot computer clouds filled with genomic cancer information that researchers across the country will be able to access remotely and mine for information.

The largest barrier to gaining information on treating specific types of cancer isn’t medical but technical, said George Komatsoulis, interim director and chief information officer of the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Biomedical Informatics and Information Technology who’s leading the cancer institute’s cloud initiative. The National Cancer Institute is part of the National Institutes of Health.

The largest source of data about cancer genetics, the cancer institute’s Cancer Genome Atlas, contains half a petabyte of information now, he said, or the equivalent of about 5 billion pages of text. Only a handful of research institutions can afford to store that amount of information on their servers let alone manipulate and analyze it, according to an article on

By 2014, officials expect the atlas to contain 2.5 petabytes of genomic data drawn from 11,000 patients. Just storing and securing that information would cost an institution $2 million per year, presuming the researchers already had enough storage space to fit it in, Komatsoulis told a meeting of the institute’s board of advisers in June.

To download all that data at 10 gigabytes per second would take 23 days, he said. If five or 10 institutions wanted to share the data, download speeds would be even slower. It could take longer than six months to share all the information.

That’s where computer clouds — the massive banks of computer servers that can pack information more tightly than most conventional data centers and make it available remotely over the Internet — come in. If the genomic information contained inside the atlas could be stored inside a cloud, he said, researchers across the world would be able to access and study it from the comfort of their offices. That would provide significant cost savings for researchers. More importantly, he said, it would democratize cancer genomics.

“As one reviewer from our board of scientific advisers put it, this means a smart graduate student someplace will be able to develop some new, interesting analytic software to mine this information and they’ll be able to do it in a reasonable time frame,” Komatsoulis said, “and without requiring millions of dollars of investment in commodity information technology.”

It’s not clear where all this genomic information will ultimately end up. If one or more of the pilots proves successful, a private sector cloud vendor may be interested in storing the information and making it available to researchers on a fee-for-service basis, Komatsoulis said.

A private sector cloud provider will have to be convinced that there’s a substantial enough market for genomic cancer information to make storing the data worth its while, Komatsoulis said. The vendor will also have to adhere to rigorous privacy standards, he said, because all the genomic data was donated by patients who were promised confidentiality.

One or more genomic cancer clouds may also be managed by university consortiums, he said, and it’s possible the government may have an ongoing role.

The cancer institute is seeking public input on the cloud through the crowdsourcing website Ideascale. The University of Chicago has already launched a cancer cloud to store some of that information. It’s not clear yet whether the university will apply to be one of the institute’s pilot clouds.


Patrick Burke

Patrick Burke is a writer and editor based in the greater New York area and occasionally blogs for Rackspace Hosting


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