Initially working at Digital Equipment, and then as part of Compaq, a computing research team based in Cambridge, Mass., optimized the massive computer banks at the Whitehead Institute and Celera Genomics to speed the sequencing of the human genome. Now, in collaboration with Partners HealthCare — and under the auspices of Hewlett-Packard — the same group is expanding its experience with genomic data into clinical applications.
Partners — a non-profit healthcare system affiliated with Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Massachusetts General Hospital — last week announced that it would work with HP Labs’ Cambridge Research Laboratory as part of a multimillion-dollar IT infrastructure deal to support integrated clinical and genomics research at the Harvard Medical School-Partners HealthCare Center for Genetics and Genomics.
The “end goal,” according to Chris Colecchi, corporate director for business development at Partners HealthCare, is to incorporate all the clinical information in its millions of patient records with genetic data, “but it will certainly be a step-wise approach and I don't think we've quite determined how we're going to attack that,” he noted. Ultimately, he said, “we're trying to take both clinical information and basic research information, and we're trying to make that usable for the clinician who sees the patient on the front lines.”
The HP Labs group will make up one piece of a broader deal that involves HP’s consulting and support services and an equipment list that includes technical computing servers, ProLiant servers, HP StorageWorks systems, and HP Openview IT service management software. The company declined to disclose further details about the IT infrastructure or its value.
From a research perspective, the project will be an invaluable learning opportunity for the Cambridge HP Labs team, which is looking to extend its “core computer science” expertise into “more life science-based, healthcare- and wellness-based applications,” according to Richard Zippel, director of the Cambridge Research Laboratory. “We’re aware that the discovery side of bioinformatics is going to move into clinical practice in the near future,” he said. In addition to the Cambridge group, Zippel said that HP’s Palo Alto research team and other HP Labs groups would also take part in the effort.
“We think that engaging [HP Labs] in the process and helping them understand what the critical clinical questions are is important,” said Colecchi. HP Labs is involved “so that they can think about the problems with us and look at what they’ve done with the Whitehead, and other work that they’ve done with the Human Genome Project that might be translated, and how they might need to change that to make the products either different or better or answer new questions,” he said.
The first task in that process, Colecchi said, is putting a technology infrastructure in place that ties together the “silo efforts” underway at different research groups in the Partners system. “We have a number of core facilities like sequencing and genotyping and proteomics, and each one has its own data collection efforts and computational efforts. But the goal is now to sew those together so that we can utilize all the data together.” The second step, he said, is tying that infrastructure to the clinical systems.
Zippel said the HP Labs team would be engaged in each step of the process. In addition to tweaking its high-performance computing equipment for computational biology applications, the team will modify HP’s data management technology to create “coherent databases and tools” for merged genomic, proteomic, and clinical data. In addition, Zippel said, the team is working on wireless sensing technology so that clinical data can be transmitted directly to the database on a 24/7 basis. This approach supports what Partners is calling “physiological genomics” — where physiological data is captured digitally, rather than from written reports, and merged with genetic information to speed personalized medicine.
“We have made a commitment at Partners that genetics and genomics — and incorporating that into the way we do business and the way we treat patients — is going to be important in the next five to 10 years,” Colecchi said. “There are lots of smaller one-off projects where researchers are trying to do this, but we think this is really unique,” he said. “We have a system that sees millions of patients, and we want this to be a system-wide project, so I think the scale of the opportunity and the scale of the problem has never been attacked before.”