By Lucas Laursen
In September IBM announced deals with Teva Pharma and Sage Bionetworks to use its Watson Health Cloud platform for a range of services, from selecting molecules for drug development to planning clinical trials and advising clinicians. A couple of weeks later, Microsoft, in Redmond, Washington, revealed a partnership between its Azure cloud computing platform and the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) Genomics Institute for data storage and analysis to support its work on genomics research. Information technology firms large and small are expanding their ecosystem of cloud computing facilities and services, hoping to attract players in industry and academia. Cloud systems can ferry, store and combine clinical, research, social and health data. Companies are attracted to these services because they allow them to keep up with the constantly growing pool of information without having to invest in their own information technology infrastructure.
IBM, headquartered in Armonk, New York, is anticipating a surge of interest from biopharma players. It recently started building a new home for its Watson Health division in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to reach the local community there. Clients including Icon, a Dublin-based global contract research organization, and Sage Bionetworks, an open-science, nonprofit research organization in Seattle, have chosen Watson Health Cloud to ramp up their computing power as and when they need it. Renting time and space from the cloud makes it possible for an institution or company to handle large spikes in data without building computing infrastructure that they may need only part of the time. “It’s basically that simple. It’s about being able to do things fast enough, reproducibly enough and at reasonable cost,” says bioengineer Benedict Paten of UCSC.
Other high-profile players offering cloud services are Seattle-based Amazon and Google of Mountain View, California, recently re-named Alphabet. Craig Venter’s Human Longevity is using Amazon Web Services to move data from the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, to the company’s facilities in San Diego, California. Their previous method used couriers to transport the data between facilities. Google launched a cloud based genome-hosting service called Google Genomics in early 2014 and has since incorporated tools from the Broad Institute.
One of the main attractions of working in the cloud is that it enables firms and institutes to draw on talent at different locations without requiring them all to be physically present in the same closed computing facility. But the health sector has been slow to adopt cloud services, mostly because of laws protecting individual health information. In the US, patient data are subject to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996, and in jurisdictions such as Europe and Japan. Conventional cloud computing services, such as Dropbox, do not offer the levels of security and access management required by those international bodies to handle human experimental and clinical data. A HIPAA-compliant cloud computing service must identify any employee who accesses the system and record exactly how such users access or modify any patient’s health data in the cloud. A new service called IBM Watson Health Cloud for Life Sciences Compliance includes tools that document all access to and changes to patient data during a project’s development in compliance with the stringent regulatory requirements. But Alvin Lee, an executive at IBM’s life sciences global regulatory center, says that due to the complexity and the high stakes, the development cycle for this service was very long.
In addition to hosting and tracking sensitive health data, IBM is looking to advise researchers and clinicians on how to deal with patient information. A recently published IBM patent revealed a method for handling requests from colleagues or caregivers to access a person’s records. The software offers advice to the data handler on how to ensure compliance with the relevant patient privacy rules. That will probably also prove a fertile source of new business, because other firms are likely to want to outsource the substantial task of processing, customizing and updating compliance with changing rules.
Some small, early efforts are beginning to show fruit, Paten says. UCSC recently won a $1.2 million grant from the California Initiative to Advance Precision Medicine to fund a pediatric cancer study designed to suggest alternative treatment options to doctors based on a child’s genomic data. With these new tools, patients, clinicians and researchers around the world could upload, analyze and discuss genomic information through a social media platform that is secure and whose privacy is ensured. That could enlarge the pool of available genetic data, which in turn would improve clinicians’ ability to match treatments to a patient’s genetic characteristics. If the approach is successful, the underlying technology could be applied to other genetic diseases. “That’s all being done via cloud resources,” Paten says.
IBM’s Lee expects that the company’s cloud computing will, in the short term, attract large partners such as universities, pharmaceutical firms and contract research organizations. Eventually it will appeal to startups and smaller medical device makers who wish to focus on developing their devices without having to develop their own computing infrastructure.
Jeff Cohen, co-founder and a vice president of Welltok, a Denver company offering health and diet advice, says his firm was attracted to IBM Watson Health Cloud for its ability to personalize recommendations to customers. Welltok draws on Watson’s natural-language abilities to ease the interaction between human and supercomputer. Such sophisticated user-interaction is not possible for a firm Welltok’s size to develop on its own, says Cohen.
For Teva, the decision to partner with IBM was clinched by Watson Health Cloud’s advanced computing power for data analysis and interpretation. Another factor, according to a spokesperson from the Petach Tikva, Israel–based Teva, was IBM’s “ecosystem of partners” that includes Medtronic, Apple and the US pharmacy chain CVS. Sharing a platform and analytic tools not only facilitates working with one another’s data but also may inspire new partnerships. Indeed, Microsoft launched an early-stage health accelerator in Herzliya, Israel, and IBM has followed with one in Haifa; both offer participants access to their cloud services. The platforms could provide a way to build relationships with the developers and business people at startups and other small companies who will shape healthcare’s future. If Herzliya and Haifa prove the principle, the hosting firms can repeat the experiment in other tech hubs. To that end, IBM recently announced that it was opening more access to the programming interface of Watson, so that more outside developers could produce their own applications that use Watson’s cloud computing services.
Even small outfits are producing big data—and need somewhere to store and analyze it. The big firms capable of building the cloud infrastructure for such work are betting on a big growth in demand for such services. “They’re selling shovels,” Paten says. “They see our data getting bigger much faster than Moore’s Law and much, much faster than storage so they see us as a big market.”
Originally published by Nature Biotechnology