University, Argonne big on data

By Sarah Miller

The University of Chicago Computation Institute (C.I.) is collaborating with Argonne National Laboratory and the Institute for Genomics and Systems Biology (IGSB) on two “big data” projects, the Beagle supercomputer and the Bionimbus Cloud, to revolutionize the way clinical researchers analyze and collect medical data.

Computation Institute director Ian Foster defines “big data” as data too large to extrapolate and analyze with standard systems.

The CI uses the Beagle supercomputer, currently housed at Argonne, to simulate biological processes in order to understand the causes of certain diseases like cancer, and to compile knowledge about basic patient outcomes and recent medical discoveries in order to discern more effective diagnoses and treatments.

C.I. senior fellow and IGSB associate senior fellow Robert Grossman has been working on the Bionimbus Cloud at the IGSB for four years. According to Grossman, it is currently one of the largest clouds to hold genomic data. It is the first project of its kind authorized by the National Health Institute (NIH) to use public data about genomes to perform biomedical research.

Grossman is currently working with the Pancreatic Cancer Genomic Initiative to sequence the genomes of benign and cancerous pancreatic tissues. The project, which will take three years, will allow researchers and physicians to better understand the variations of pancreatic cancer, leading to better diagnoses.

The project has received a number of private donations. Crate & Barrel founders Carole and Gordon Segal made a “substantial pledge” to the Pancreatic Cancer Genomic Medicine Initiative. A Chicago Tribune article reported that University trustee Thomas Pritkzer and his wife Margot hosted a fundraiser downtown on April 8 to promote the “big data” Bionimbus Cloud initiative to 50 personal friends.

“There is a race to see who can build the largest database and collect the most data,” Foster said. “With these gifts [and fundraising campaigns], we hope to take the lead.”