As in 2009, when Amazon and Google came to exhibit cloud computing services, the Bio-IT World Conference & Expo this year found a crop of big computer firms out in force along with marquee names in consulting and device technology. SAP, the dominant supplier of business management software, was a first-time exhibitor. All of them showcased new products and businesses addressing what they collectively perceive as the next big thing in health care and drug research: genomics.
The advent of low-cost sequencing equipment yielding large quantities of high-quality patient information has served to amplify the “big data” that brought the cloud computing giants to Boston back in 2009. It seemed only natural that on entering the exhibit floor, one immediately passed the booths of Illumina, purveyor of the “$1,000 genome,” and IBM, which is putting its Watson computer system to work on sequencing data.
Several of the large computing firms have rolled out life sciences add-ons as part of their complex business management systems. In doing so they built in the latest data storage and compression technology and tailored machines for specific tasks. Some have singled out genomics as a distinct information technology (IT) market because of the quantity and complexity of data blasting into life science research.
At the conference, SAP’s new personalized medicine business exhibited Foundation for Health, a data storage and analytics system. Based on HANA, the IT architecture that SAP debuted in an overhaul of its bread-and-butter business management product several years ago, the system is designed to maintain and analyze large data sets generated by next-generation sequencing, according to Dinesh Vandayar, vice president of the business. Moreover, it allows researchers to perform analyses across disparate data sets, he said.
Nearby, Dell showcased enhancements to its Cloud Clinical Archive, a cloud-accessed database of 12 billion images and 160 million clinical studies. “What’s new is genomics sequencing data support,” said John Ebel, a consultant in Dell’s health care and life sciences cloud services division.
Dell developed its IT service for the sector through new partnerships, such as one with Zebra Medical Vision, a screening and diagnostics decision support software vendor. The firm also partners in health care with the informatics software suppliers Appistry and Lab7 Systems.
A leading supplier of supercomputers, Cray, put a genomics spin on its offering after integrating a line of data management products into its standard large-scale computers, according to Ted Slater, head of Cray’s health care and life sciences division. One benefit of combining supercomputing with big data management is the ability to generate graphs drawn from disparate data sets, Slater said.
“And as genome sequencing gets cheaper, a lot more data has to be stored and analyzed,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for Cray.”
IBM’s Watson Health division, launched a year ago, hopes to put the Watson computer to work on deriving insights from vast and disparate genomics data stores, according to Bill Evans, chief marketing officer for the division. “The real frontier in using data to solve problems is creating an end-to-end viewpoint on your business model or your customer or your therapy or molecule or what have you,” he said. “Genomics is a very large part of the puzzle.”
Watson, which can be seen chatting with Bob Dylan and Carrie Fisher about its cognitive abilities in IBM television ads, is taught rather than programmed, Evans explained. Originally engineered to compete on the popular TV game show “Jeopardy!” (it won $1 million), Watson is at the forefront of machine learning, an advanced form of computing that generates algorithms that learn from and make predictions based on data.
“Our goal is to get to the point where Watson is a trusted companion,” Evans said.
Janak Joshi, a consultant in Deloitte’s ConvergeHealth life sciences division, said the challenge posed by genomics is the coordination of sequencing results with other varieties of health care and patient data. Data management systems also need to “mature” to the point where they assist researchers in determining which data are important across cohorts of patients that can number in the thousands.
“End-to-end traceability across all data in a way that is reproducible is critical to establishing quality research,” Joshi said. The data overload in genomics-based research has created the need for a “bridge” between data storage and analytics. That need has pushed Deloitte, which consults in a broad array of industries, to develop its first software products for life science research.
Illumina, which heralded the advent of the $1,000 genome in 2014 with its HiSeq X Ten sequencing system, is also determined to develop a business downstream from genomics sequencing. At Bio-IT World, the company introduced several data analysis applications for its BaseSpace cloud-based storage product.
The new applications add analytics to the basic product, with functions such as data categorization and sharing that will bring sequencing data into a fuller research context, according to Brady Davis, senior director of market development at Illumina.
Davis, like other sequencing system vendors, sees a new wave of IT development following on his firm’s sequencing milestone. “It reminds me of almost a decade ago in the enterprise data warehousing space, trying to bring disparate data together into an organized, normalized format and run analytics on top,” he said. “Now, we’ve added this new twist: genomics. Data that is much bigger and more complex.”
Michael Elliott, head of the bioinformatics consultancy Atrium Research, heard an even more distant echo at the conference this year. “I almost go back 16 years and look at the number of bioinformatics companies exhibiting at the show.” At that time, the genome had just been decoded, and scores of software and service companies poured into the exhibit hall at Bio-IT World, only to evaporate in the years ahead.
“We are probably in the hype cycle right now,” Elliott said of the new genomics systems and services on view in Boston. “My surprise this year was the number of people going for the supposed gold rush.”
Yet there was a sense among attendees that advances in genomics data management are starting to make a difference.
“We are starting to assemble sizable data sets, and we see that by using dynamic computing tools available now, we can actually make serious progress against disease,” said Jason Stowe, chief executive officer of the health care cloud computing services firm Cycle Computing. “There were a lot of hallway conversations. That’s exciting and indicates real momentum in the life sciences technology community.”