Supercomputer will speed breakthroughs in medical research

June 18 2008 / by futuretalk / In association with Future
Category: Other   Year: General   Rating: 11 Hot

By Dick Pelletier

As our “miracle” 21st century begins to unfold, a statement, which has been an eternal truth for most of human history, is now being seriously challenged: Humans will always be battling sicknesses. Many scientists believe this statement could be overturned within the next three decades, and most of the credit for this feat would lie in our ability to increase computer power.

Today, medical researchers, in efforts to cure heart disease, cancer, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, and many other human ills, perform trial and error experiments in labs, and conduct human clinical trials that yield excruciatingly slow results. Cancer deaths are predicted to not end for another seven years, and cures for other diseases are projected to be even more elusive.

But researchers say we could speed medical research progress by first using Clinical Trial Simulations (CTS). If we preceded actual human trials with high-speed computer simulations, the end results would be reached much faster. Ronald Gieschke, of Hoffmann-La Roche in Switzerland, claims CTS will have a significant impact on the way in which drugs are developed in the future. “Human clinical trials will still be necessary,” Gieschke says, “but CTS will make them faster and more accurate”.

In addressing the need for increased computer power, IBM’s new “Roadrunner,” built for the US Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory has achieved performance of 1.026 petaflops (more than one quadrillion floating point operations per second) and is now rated as the fastest supercomputer in the world.

The DOE announced that this computer will link its facilities to other government labs and major research centers around the world. Scientists will find easy access to this new supercomputer later this year, according to a LANL spokesman. The new machine will enable breakthrough discoveries in biology that will fundamentally change medical science and its impact across society. (cont.)

But critics ask, “Will ethics stand in the way of this progress”? Are we moving too fast in our trek to end death and disease”? “No”, says Steven Burrill, of Burrill & Co., a San Francisco-based bank. “The medical industry is in good shape politically”.

Two of the country’s largest help organizations, The Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations recently announced a joint effort to get new medical technologies to the world’s poorest people. Saving lives is more popular now than ever before, say leading scientists.

The late President Ronald Reagan raised awareness of a number of health issues that medical researchers hope to solve. There was his lung injury suffered from a 1981 assassination attempt; hearing loss in 1983 caused by an old movie set accident; colon polyps and numerous skin cancers detected from 1985 through 1995; and finally, Alzheimer’s disease in 1994 which eventually resulted in his death.

Reagan’s wife Nancy now leads an effort to fund research into embryonic stem cells as a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s and other diseases. She hopes people can be saved from the many crippling illnesses that stem cell therapy promises to correct.

Will this “magical future” become reality and lead to a society without sickness and unwanted deaths? Positive futurists believe that it is certainly possible. Comments welcome.

If it happens, when do you think all sickness and disease will be conquered?

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Comment Thread (5 Responses)

  1. The US is really the major player in the supercomputer world. Of the top ten fastest systems in the world, the first five are American:

    1) Roadrunner, 1.06 petaflops (more than one quadrillion floating point operations per second); 2) BlueGene/L, 478.2 teraflops (trillions of floating point operations per second); 3) BlueGene/P, 450.3 teraflops; 4) SunBlade x6420 “Ranger”, 326 teraflops; and 5) Cray XT4 “Jaguar”, 205 teraflops.

    Rounding out the top ten, 6th place goes to Germany; 7th, US; 8th, India; and 9th and 10th, France.

    These rankings were derived from the 31st edition of the TOP500 list released yesterday from the International Supercomputing Conference in Dresden, Germany.

    Posted by: futuretalk   June 19, 2008
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  2. But critics ask, “Will ethics stand in the way of this progress”? Are we moving too fast in our trek to end death and disease”? “No”, says Steven Burrill, of Burrill & Co., a San Francisco-based bank. “The medical industry is in good shape politically”.

    Ridiculous! We’re moving far too slow. While supercomputers are used for the military, we’re wasting precious time that could be spent curing. There needs to be a serious change in attitude.

    Posted by: StuartDobson   June 20, 2008
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  3. Yes, we certainly could move forward more rapidly. It would help if our lawmakers understood science more clearly; or at least if they were more liberal. A Democrat President and Congress might help; and it looks like we’ll soon find out.

    Posted by: futuretalk   June 20, 2008
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  4. To think that Big Pharma will suddenly drop their tried and true method of decade-long clinical trials and start utilizing supercomputer simulations of the human body in the near future to test drugs is nothing short of preposterous.

    I think it’s far too early to think about the Singularity at this point in time. We’re at least 150-300 years from a superintelligent AI Santa Claus at our beck and call, so the human race better check back in a few centuries.

    Posted by: adbatstone80   June 21, 2008
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  5. Some drug companies are already utilizing simulated clinical trials: “Getting drugs to market faster Vertex Pharmaceuticals saves millions using SAS® for clinical trial simulations For pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, the development of a new medicine can take more than a decade – a decade of great expense for the developer and of prolonged anxiety for patients in need of new treatments. Meanwhile, the escalating cost of research and development, accompanied by the increasing complexity and expense of human clinical trials, threaten pharmaceutical innovation. That’s why, several years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended that the industry expand and accelerate development through simulated clinical trials – a method that was already being advocated at Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. Using SAS®9 technology, Vertex Pharmaceuticals has designed simulations of clinical trials and analyzed millions of data points created by thousands of virtual patients in each simulated trial. As a result, Vertex Pharmaceuticals is potentially saving millions of development dollars and possibly increasing the speed at which it is able to advance drug candidates through the development process. Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Vertex Pharmaceuticals is a global biotechnology company focused on the discovery, development and commercialization of breakthrough drugs for a range of serious diseases. Vertex Pharmaceuticals collaborates with major pharmaceutical companies such as GlaxoSmithKline, Merck & Co., and Novartis Pharma AG in the discovery and development of drugs for the treatment of HIV infection, various forms of cancer and other diseases. Vertex Pharmaceuticals is also independently developing several first-in-class drugs to treat hepatitis C virus infection and a range of inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.”

    Posted by: futuretalk   June 21, 2008
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