Advancing Genomic Sequencing and Public Health with Digital Infrastructures

Equinix removes the barriers for institutions to focus on genome research

Eric Hui
Advancing Genomic Sequencing and Public Health with Digital Infrastructures

The future of healthcare is advancing rapidly across different medical fields. In just one year, and right before our eyes, we’ve witnessed first-hand the development of the COVID-19 vaccine from when the virus was first identified. An enormous achievement in an otherwise lengthy task that previously took, on average, 10-15 years.[1]

This was all thanks to the advancement of genomic sequencing, where researchers understand the entire genetic makeup of an organism. However, it didn’t come without its own challenges. One of which includes the massive data volume generated from the research. A single human genome sequence alone takes up 200 gigabytes, equivalent to the space of 200 movies. This means the success of innovation relies highly on robust and agile infrastructure to support the entire research program, from data processing and exchanging to analyzing and storage. Fortunately, facilitated by digital infrastructures, healthcare experts and public health bodies are now able to speed up research development and worldwide collaboration, barriers previously stopping the advancement of health research.

To illustrate how far we’ve come, we take a closer look at how a future-proof digital infrastructure has advanced genomic research possibilities, its applications, and its future benefits to the larger public health agenda.

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Speeding up collaboration with secure connections

One of the significant factors why healthcare delivered a vaccine as soon as they did was the increase of speed in collaboration. Under the intense pressures of the pandemic, countries found themselves quickly needing a faster way to share an immense amount of data with each other and with clinics, labs, and the World Health Organization (WHO).

While it’s essential for researchers to collaborate across borders effectively, it is also critical to do so in a way that does not pose security risks as patient data is sensitive. A standard internet connection cannot transmit data in a secure, fast, and reliable form as required. But by deploying an interconnected infrastructure like Equinix Fabric™, researchers can bypass the public internet, reducing security threats and attack surfaces.

As an example, Genomics England, a medical institute supporting some of the world’s most advanced and precision medicine, was able to address the fast-evolving situation by utilizing Equinix Fabric™. Genomics England could share data quickly and securely across locations, which helped facilitate collaboration with researchers in UK universities to advance research.

With support from Equinix, Genomics England set up its research environment in just a few months and built infrastructure from scratch that was able to handle the computing requirements of genomic sequencing[1]. This infrastructure saved a significant amount of time, especially when timely research was imperative. In this sense, connected and digital infrastructure not only advanced the speed of collaboration, but also advanced the research process itself to be able to deliver timely solutions. The outcome means that disease variations and solutions can be brought to market faster in the future as the research chain becomes more efficient, and barriers to sharing and collaborating become smaller.

Furthermore, as health data needs to be kept private, organizations like Genomics England can store and process their data internally first. Then they can utilize tools on the cloud to analyze the anonymized genomic data. This model is secure, reliable and stable so that researchers can focus on their data without concern for slow or stolen information.

Increased flexibility and scale with data protection regulation

Another challenge faced in genomic medicine is data gravity, referring to the sheer scale of all genomes that need to be collected, processed, stored and shared, which is almost unimaginable. This requires a digital architecture that can be flexible to support different uses of large and expanding volumes of data. As an additional challenge, governments across the globe are tightening their regulations with data exchange. This means that certain data is required to be handled and stored locally. For institutions, the answer lies in a hybrid infrastructure model.[2]

A hybrid model can support sequencing calculations on-premises and provide secondary research and analysis operating in the cloud. This boosts the efficiency of operations with the capacity they require. It also provides flexibility for research as it allows institutions to quickly scale their infrastructure to specific data requirements.

The flexibility benefits are not only limited to larger-scale researchers, but also extend to smaller-scale researchers. For example, a group of academics across countries in India, Brazil and Portugal have been researching how tuberculosis strains had evolved in different countries.[3] The project required dedicated servers to host the data cost-effectively and meet local data regulations. Transmitting data through the internet was unreliable, so rather than buying dedicated servers, going digital meant they could rent servers to work together. The researchers tapped into Equinix tools such as Equinix Metal™ that let them save costs, speed up collaboration, comply with requirements and adjust their storage and computing power to facilitate their research. Furthermore, rather than waiting for researchers in other locations to complete their data and send it across, they were able to work in tandem.

By utilizing digital infrastructures and solutions such as Equinix Fabric and Equinix Metal, researchers of all sizes can quickly interconnect physical and virtual digital infrastructure, collaborate, and scale hybrid deployments easily in a cost-effective manner.

The future of genome research and public health

Looking ahead, the possibilities in genomic tech are far-reaching. Besides faster and more secure systems, researchers can also access artificial intelligence (AI) to predict outcomes and automate actions. AI can help identify DNA pieces quickly, a crucial factor in the fight against ongoing antibiotic resistance, cancer treatment and rare disease research.[4] AI tools are also helping researchers automate routine tasks, such as trimming data, classifying relevant sequences and submitting medical certificates—saving valuable time for researchers. As an added advantage, researchers don’t need to develop their own tools. Platform Equinix® can help build AI models quickly via a variety of technology partners available.  This allows them the flexibility to adjust the amount of storage they need based on research intensity.

Government bodies are also increasingly recognizing the importance of these advancements and turning to genomic research to provide personalized healthcare for patients. In 2018, the UK Government announced an ambitious new target to sequence 5 million genomes over the next five years to place genomic medicine as one of the core pillars of healthcare.[5] More recently, Singapore has built a custom cloud infrastructure to support the large-scale study of Singapore genomes.[6] But as healthcare becomes increasingly digitized, a key consideration is for government privacy frameworks to ensure that data remains secure. Policymakers can examine using blockchain to secure and trace instances of data sharing.[7]

Transforming the way we research health 

Healthcare is being revolutionized. Whether we are increasing the speed of response, uncovering genetic mysteries, or collaborating with researchers worldwide, public health benefits from the leaps that researchers can make. It is exciting to see healthcare continue to crack diseases with the aid of technology, and at Equinix, it’s even more exciting to work with industry-leading partners and support their data infrastructure needs to advance public health.

[1] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/how-did-we-develop-a-covid-19-vaccine-so-quickly

[2] Digital Infrastructure to Support World-leading Genomic Medicine whitepaper

[3] Digital Infrastructure to Support World-leading Genomic Medicine whitepaper

[4] https://govinsider.asia/insights/eric-hui-equinix-how-genomics-could-change-public-health/

[5] https://govinsider.asia/insights/written-in-our-genes-predicting-health-with-genomics-swaine-chen/

[6] https://www.genomicsengland.co.uk/news/matt-hancock-announces-sequencing-ambition

[7] https://www.a-star.edu.sg/News/a-star-news/news/features/to-100-000-and-beyond-scaling-the-singapore-genetic-databank-with-analytics-and-ai-technologies

[8] https://govinsider.asia/insights/eric-hui-equinix-how-genomics-could-change-public-health/

 

 

A hybrid model can support sequencing calculations on-premises and provide secondary research and analysis operating in the cloud."
Eric Hui
Eric Hui Director Business Development - IoT Ecosystems, Asia Pacific
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