American Heart Association looks for cure in the cloud

Scientists around the world can share and collaborate on research in AWS cloud

LAS VEGAS -- Executives at the American Heart Association are betting that the cures for heart disease, stroke and diabetes lie in the cloud.

The heart association (AHA), a nonprofit organization that funds research on heart disease and promotes public health policies, is working with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to set up a cloud-based system where scientists from around the world can store, share and analyze research data.

Making that data available in the cloud could accelerate research and lead to a cure for cardiovascular disease, which is the top cause of death worldwide.

Nancy Brown - American Heart Association CEO American Heart Association

Nancy Brown is CEO of the American Heart Association.

"One of the biggest obstacles we recognized was finding a way to create a forum for more rapid and cutting-edge access to data," said Nancy Brown, the association's CEO, in an interview with Computerworld at the AWS re:Invent conference this week. "This is a game changer for science and research."

After a year of planning, the heart association launched the project using the AHA's Precision Medicine Platform in mid-November, creating separate clouds for the 10 research organizations participating in the project, along with one overarching cloud.

The AHA, which has previously used the AWS cloud to store employee and donor data, expects the list of research partners to grow, with each one getting its own cloud.

For instance, the Duke Clinical Research Institute, an early participant in the project, is storing its 30 years of anonymous patient records in its own cloud.

However that same data also has been copied to the one major cloud, where other researchers can access, search and analyze it.

This keeps the institute's research data untouched on its own cloud so other scientists can't change the original information, while also making a copy of the data accessible to researchers around the globe.

Participating scientists are not giving up their studies and data but making it available in the AHA's cloud.

"To push new novel discoveries, we need the ability to allow scientists and researchers to have access to multiple data sets," Brown said. "There's a lot of data out there -- data from clinical trials, data from hospitals and their electronic health records, data from the Framingham Heart study. Traditionally, all of that has been kept by individual companies or data owners."

She explained that if a researcher is studying, for example, the effects of a new cholesterol inhibitor on African-American men under 35, he would have to go to each academic institution, research lab and pharmaceutical company that is doing related research and ask each one to run a custom study on its data.

If 10 organizations agree, the researcher still is left with 10 different data sets coming in at 10 different times – and some data may not come in at all.

However, if all the scientific data is stored in the AHA cloud, the researcher could access it all without all the bureaucracy, making his work faster and easier.

"Right now, an average scientist can't get access to a pharmaceutical company's clinical trial data," Brown said. "It's not open and available to the public. The bureaucracy around many of these studies is significant. We want to push the concept of open access to data and the idea of collaboration. Without the cloud, that's not possible."

The cloud allows easy sharing and collaboration in a way that traditional storage could not. This cloud project could mean significant changes in the way researchers do their work and the information they can use for it.

"The idea has merit," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group. "If you can combine and correlate the massive amount of research that has been done, you'd likely get to a cure much more quickly. Up until now, most of these efforts were siloed, and that has resulted in an impressive amount of redundant work and lack of progress given the massive amount of funding going into the various efforts."

One issue is that these research efforts have largely been competing and not cumulative.

"The people doing this likely could be considered heroes because they are putting progress ahead of self-promotion," Enderle said. "I hope this changes the way research is done. Saving a life is invaluable and we are talking about saving thousands, if not millions."

Jeff Kagan, an independent industry analyst, said the AHA's project shows one of the big upsides to using the cloud.

"It creates that place where researchers can pool their resources in a way where one plus one equals three," he added. "I think the cloud is a great place to bring all sorts of scientists, doctors and researchers together."

Brown noted that AWS is donating its cloud computing services to the project, while the AHA is adding financial resources and pulling in research organizations.

"Many things are on the brink of discovery and we intend to push them by using the cloud," Brown said. "This is the beginning of what we know will be a movement because of the response we're getting from the scientific community."

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