Google’s massive servers will store and analyze 10,000 complete genomes of autism patients and related clinical data, the largest project of its kind, in order to make it easier for researchers to devise better treatments or find a possible cure for autism.
Scientists are using genomics - the study of genetic material consisting of chromosomes, genes, and DNA - to find clues on how certain diseases originate and how they can be treated.
By mapping and sequencing the human genome, researchers can someday find the cure for genetically-linked conditions such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and autism spectrum diseases, to name a few.
The information about a whole genome can take up about 100 gigabytes of memory. But it takes many genomes to glean meaningful research insights.
Sequencing a million genomes would generate more than 100 petabytes of data. Storing that amount of data presents a challenge for most researchers, because universities, hospitals and research facilities have finite computer resources.
As part of its Google Genomics initiative, which was launched earlier this year, Google’s solution is to host this data using a cloud-based, open-access platform that can be used by researchers from multiple locations without having to deal with limited storage issues, and for them to leverage the computing power of the company’s massive data centers.
The technology giant recently announced that it is collaborating with Autism Speaks, the autism research and advocacy organization, to store and sequence 10,000 complete genomes of autistic kids and their families, plus related clinical data collected over the past 15 years.
The data from the Autism Speaks Ten Thousand Genomes Program (AUT10K) amounts to roughly 100 TB, the largest, private repository of genome data of autism patients by far.
Scientists from anywhere in the world who have limited IT resources can access this valuable data via the cloud, and with the help of Google’s computing prowess and analytical tools, they can uncover breakthroughs in understanding and treating autism.
Google said it would have a portal ready for researchers by the end of the year.
“Google has all this great data analysis, processing and storage capability and that’s exactly what genomics needs,”
David Glazer, engineering director for Google Genomics, said in a report by USA Today.
“Modern biology has become a data-limited science,” he added. “Modern computing can remove those limits.”
Bob Wright, co-founder of Autism Speaks, said in a statement.
“This announcement represents an unprecedented intersection of business, science and philanthropy that will drastically accelerate the pace of autism research. The insight and expertise the Google team brings to the table is unmatched. Utilizing Google Cloud Platform further advances Autism Speaks’ commitment to advancing cutting-edge science.”
Google and Autism Speaks consider the joint project as a boon to research about autism, a mental condition characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.
Dr. Robert Ring, chief science officer of Autism Speaks, told the Wall Street Journal that researchers and universities who would like to use the AUT10K database would have to abide by a standard research agreement, and would need to figure out how to protect some of their shared data for their own use - such as patents.
The organizers claim that the process of storing the information on Google’s servers is secure, and that patients’ names and other personal health identifiers would be anonymized.
“This is as secure as it gets,”
Ring told CBS News.
“The important thing is that the data has been deidentified.”
Privacy issues have been partly to blame for the failure of Google’s initial foray into health information storage - a program called Google Health, which eventually shut down last year.
However, this has not stopped the company from engaging in other health-related projects. It is reportedly launching a health tracking platform called Google Fit later this month.
The company is also pushing the use of its Google Glass in hospitals. A much more similar project is Calico. Google launched the company last year to conduct genetic research on how to treat aging-related disease and lengthen the life span.
Whole genome sequencing to investigate autism spectrum disorders can eventually lead to better treatments. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 children in the U.S. have autism.
The Middle East has scarce data on autism, but experts estimate the incidence in the region is higher than the global median prevalence of 62 per 10,000 individuals, according to the World Health Organization.