Claire Bennett

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How high performance computers could save your life

It would take many millions of years to process 100 trillion statistical tests by hand. But in the past five to ten years, the speed and scale of data processing have increased to such an extent that we can now process 100 trillion statistical tests in just hours. And this technology could well save your life. 

Researchers are using high–performance computers (HPC) to ask questions and find computational solutions that were previously beyond our comprehension. They’re using HPC to solve the riddles of complex disease. 

Predicting which cell types underpin disease 

Dr Joseph Powell is using this technology to examine single–cell data and predict which cell types underpin disease.  

“It takes 10,000’s of 100’s of individual cells to understand which cells are contributing to disease, and doing things that other cells aren’t,” Dr Powell explains.

“We can then take that data and create diagnostic tools for early detection of disease.” 

Finding patterns with genomics 

Professor Grant Montgomery is using high–performance computers to identify variation in reproductive traits and increased risk for reproductive diseases. 

“The developments in DNA sequencing and genotyping parallel the advances in technology,” he says.

“We need computing power to handle bigger questions. We need to look at huge samples so that we can find reliable patterns in the data.” 

Professor Montgomery says we’ve gone from looking at one position in the genome to looking at 10 million, which dramatically speeds up our rate of discovery.

“Instead of looking position by position across the genome we can look at all of the positions at once and do that on lots of individuals. Some papers now have 500,000 people by 10 million positions in the genome.”

Connecting scientists around the globe 

High–performance computing is also connecting scientists around the globe. Collaborators on opposite sides of the world are working together, which results in 24/7 progress on a problem. 

Dr Cas Simons has been collaborating with researchers internationally to uncover the genes responsible for some of the world’s rarest genetic disorders, such as Temple Verstser Syndrome (TBS). 

“Once the responsible gene is identified we can progress to animal and cell models and then to developing treatments,” he says. 

Reconstructing cells at ultra–high magnification in 3D and 4D 

The processing of imagery by high–performance computers is the other area where technological advancements are helping to make life–saving discoveries. 

As laser microscopes develop to probe deeper into the inner workings of our bodies, high–speed computers are required to process the images captured. 

Professor Jenny Stow uses this technology to reconstruct cells at ultra–high magnification in three dimensions and four dimensions (moving 3D images) to examine them in health and disease. 

“We can collect and record so many examples of what cells are doing, which allows us to look at hundreds and thousands of cells instead of one. So, we can use this to figure out what we can expect to see with cells,” Professor Stow explains.

Computer programs and machine learning techniques then allow the computers to analyse and build models for the data.  

“Eventually we’ll be able to replace long arduous and expensive tests with computer learning.”