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By 25 January 2022 | Categories: feature articles

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From a healthcare perspective, we have witnessed, and continue to live through, a truly historical moment. While it has certainly been a difficult period of history, could we now be looking ahead to a golden age of healthcare innovation?

“A recent report from Brookings tells us that in 2020, access to health care services declined significantly throughout the world. For patients, the fear of contracting COVID-19 from their visit was the most cited reason for not seeking medical care. The inability to reach health care facilities due to disruptions in public transportation and stay-at-home orders was also a prominent challenge,” cites Jim Holland, regional director: Africa for Lenovo Infrastructure Solutions Group.

“Technology has proven to be a great enabler of telehealth solutions that will help healthcare sectors offer effective ways of improving outcomes during times of crisis and beyond. Another story reminds us that AI can, for example, offer data-collecting tools to aid in contact tracing, symptom checking, outbreak prediction, vulnerability tracking. Any mobile device is basically a communication platform for doctor-patient interaction and the sharing of public health information campaigns, and blockchain solutions can protect privacy during macro analysis of these crises by anonymising collected data.

“Cloud-based platforms make it easier for workers and students to practice social distancing, as do drones and robots that deliver medicine, medical supplies, and meals to health facilities and infected patients,” he elaborates.

But one crucial area of this new era of healthcare innovation, perhaps not as well highlighted as the obvious, is genomics, which is driving the potential for faster discovery, greater personalisation, and lower costs in the future of healthcare.

Identifying the body’s building blocks

Genomics is in essence, the study of an organism’s genes, through research and analysis of genomes in organic materials. The reason this is so important is that our genes hold the keys to unlocking earlier diagnosis for diseases. They are the building blocks for tailored treatment solutions.

“Until recently, medicine has typically been created to treat and diagnose ‘the average person’,” says Holland. “However, a greater understanding of genetics and its role in human disease, alongside advancements in genetic sequencing technology, could enable us to create personalised treatment plans designed to treat an individual.”

Genomics was first pioneered in the 1970s, and the Human Genome Project of the 1990’s to map our basic building blocks, established genomics as a practice. Since then, genomics has accelerated considerably in the intervening decades thanks to technological innovation, particularly advancements in processing and High-Powered Computing (HPC).

In 2020, the global genomics market was worth an estimated $23 billion. The impact of COVID-19 has greatly increased demand for the technology, with the industry hitting a new level of demand and the figure expected to grow to $94 billion in 2028.

So why isn’t it already widespread?

Powering the healthcare revolution

“In short because it takes a lot of time and money,” continues Holland. “In a lab environment, processed genomes are the currency by which they operate. The complexity of genomic sequencing means it requires huge amounts of processing power. Typically, it takes datacentres around the world 150-160 hours to process a single whole genome, after it has been processed by an expensive gene sequencer.

“This process became the bottleneck of the lab, slowing the progress of research and the introduction of new medical advancements. Because of this bottleneck, researchers limited their focus to single genes or genomes,” he explains.

However, COVID-19 has changed the game considerably. The efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines and treatment development has depended largely on researchers’ ability to assemble and analyse many genomes more quickly and at a larger scale. This was essential because of the increasing number of variants across the whole population of people. Researchers needed to be able to track multiple strains in people, monitor how they change over time, and map these to geographies so they could understand the interaction between host and virus.

Funding and time created considerable hurdles for scientists, as many research organisations don’t have the resources available to develop DIY alternative workarounds that scale to support population-level analytics.

However, thanks to advancements like GOAST (Genomics Optimization and Scalability Tool), researchers now have technologies that can cut down the time it takes to process a genome from days to minutes.

GOAST-time-busters

The GOAST Base has enabled researchers to reduce the time it takes to process a single genome from 60-150+ hours to an amazing 48 minutes, 188x faster than the industry average. That result is accomplished on an industry-standard two socket rack server, without the use of acceleration or specialty hardware, on the open-source GATK platform.  In the fast-paced world of healthcare diagnostics and treatments, this is a game-changing development.

GOAST Plus, built on a higher powered eight processor system, can reduce genomic processing time to less than 20 minutes, better than or equal to boutique solutions powered by expensive accelerators and proprietary software, at a fraction of the cost.

This advancement has enabled a significant increase in lab productivity by enabling multiple genomes to be processed at any given time. More genomes processed means faster answers, deeper insights, lower costs, and discoveries that save lives sooner.

Lowering the cost has also lowered the barriers to entry for researchers. GOAST delivers pre-tuned hardware and pre-configured software, leveraging the optimisations identified during extensive in-house testing, meaning researchers don’t need to invest time and effort in creating something bespoke.

Accelerating the future of personalised healthcare

Even beyond COVID-19, the need for vaccine studies will not go away and GOAST is only one puzzle piece in the future of healthcare. As with all services, personalising them to the individual yields the best results and, with almost eight billion people in the world, it’s increasingly harder to treat people as though they are all the same, says Holland. 

“Imagine a future where each doctor had easy access to an analysis of a persons’ genes,” he adds. “They would be empowered to tailor their diagnoses quickly and accurately to the specific person’s needs and prescribe the perfect dosage of medicine. As well as improving the care for the individuals, the time saved with more accurate diagnosis and treatment routes could create considerably more capacity within healthcare system to improve and save lives.

“This isn’t just a sci-fi dream anymore - we have the technology and resources available to provide smarter care for all – the gauntlet is here, it’s polished, all we need to do is pick it up,” he concludes.

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