University of Rochester and IBM Expand Partnership in Pursuit of New Frontiers in Health

May 11, 2012

IBM Blue Gene/Q

The University of Rochester will be one of the first academic institutions in the nation to receive the next generation of IBM’s high performance supercomputers. The new system – called the Blue Gene/Q – is one of most powerful and efficient computer systems in the world and will be part of a new center at the University of Rochester dedicated to health research.

“This is an important step toward the creation of a resource that will make Rochester an international center for biomedical research and a magnet for research funding, scientific minds, industry and academic collaboration, and private sector job growth,” said Joel Seligman, president of the University of Rochester. “We are proud to partner with IBM to showcase this exciting new technology and are deeply grateful to Governor Cuomo, Lt. Governor Duffy, our local delegation, and the legislative leadership in Albany for their support for this initiative.” 

“The collaboration between state government, academia, and the private sector in Rochester shows the remarkable progress that can be accomplished through the innovative partnerships we are developing,” said Lieutenant Governor Robert J. Duffy.  “This partnership will create much-needed jobs and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity for the region. I commend Governor Cuomo for having the vision to establish the Regional Council initiative, and University of Rochester President Joel Seligman and IBM for providing a model for private-public partnerships in the 21st Century.”

Computer-generated model of human immune system response to the influenza virus.

In 2008, the University of Rochester created the Health Sciences Center for Computational Innovation (HSCCI) in partnership with IBM. The same year, IBM gifted a previous generation of its Blue Gene supercomputer system – the Blue Gene/P – to the University. Since that time, more than 500 scientists at the University of Rochester have used high performance computing in the course of their research and the Center has helped attract $84 million in new funding, including a contract worth up to $50 million from the National Institutes of Health to create the Respiratory Pathogens Research Center and a $12 million grant to create a Center for Biodefense Immune Modeling

It is anticipated that, over time, the partnership with IBM will continue to grow and ultimately produce the most advanced computer network dedicated to health research in the nation. Last year, HSCCI was identified as a priority project by the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council and received $5 million from New York State towards the $100 million project.

 “The big healthcare challenges of the 21st century – unlocking the potential of the human genome, creating a more efficient and cost effective health care system, and preventing and treating disease on a global scale – will require the combination of cutting edge science and high performance computing,” said Ralph Kuncl, Ph.D., M.D., provost of the University of Rochester. “Over the last four years, our nascent partnership with IBM has already demonstrated the necessity and transformative potential of this initiative.” 

Access to computer systems that have the ability to analyze vast quantities of data – a challenge commonly referred to as “big data” – is widely viewed as one of the keys to advancing medical knowledge and innovation.  Decades of breakthroughs in the fields of genomics, proteomics, and molecular biology, new technologies such as advanced health imaging systems and real-time sensors, and the accumulation of highly detailed demographic information simultaneously represent an opportunity and a barrier to research. This wealth of information holds the potential to give scientists heretofore unprecedented insight into human health. However, in many instances efforts to interpret this data have been frustrated by the absence of computing resources or software tools powerful enough to fully analyze the mountains of data generated by these new technologies and disciplines. 

Supercomputing holds the potential to open new doors of inquiry by allowing scientists to sift through and analyze huge volumes of data and create complex models and simulations that would previously not have been possible. IBM’s Blue Gene/Q represents the pinnacle of high performance computing and is 14 times more powerful than its predecessor.  A single Blue Gene/Q has a peak performance of 209 teraflops – meaning it can make 209 trillion calculations per second.  At the same time, it is expected to be the world’s most energy-efficient computer. 

The potential applications of the Blue Gene’s unique computational capabilities are vast. Examples of specific health research underway at the University of Rochester that employ high performance computing include efforts to develop complex models of the human immune system to help scientists predict virus mutation, anticipate pandemic outbreaks, and design more effective vaccines.   University of Rochester scientists are using this capability to develop and evaluate experimental therapies for HIV, new influenza vaccines, and the next generation of antibiotics. In another project, IBM and University scientists are collaborating to create a computer-generated simulation of the heart in an effort to better understand which drugs may cause lethal disruptions of the heart’s electrical activity.

“High performance computing holds the potential to revolutionize the way we study, monitor, and treat diseases,” said David Topham, Ph.D., a University of Rochester Medical Center microbiologist and director of the HSCCI. “In many respects, our ability to generate data has exceeded our ability to interpret and, ultimately, manipulate that information and apply it to real world problems. This partnership with IBM will enable scientists to develop a fuller and more complex understanding of human health from the molecular level all the way to entire populations.”

“The confluence of new technologies, fields of knowledge, and demographic trends will reshape the delivery of health care on a national level,” said Bradford C. Berk, M.D., Ph.D., CEO of the University of Rochester Medical Center. “For institutions and regions that invest in and stay on the cutting edge of biomedical innovation, this transformation represents an opportunity for significant economic growth.”

The Center for Governmental Research estimates that the HSCCI will create as many as 880 jobs at the University and in the community and generate $205 million in new research funding over the next ten years. These jobs will be created through a combination of new faculty and staff hired to operate the Center, growth in research funding, and by expanding existing and forming new industry and academic partnerships with companies that require access to the HSCCI’s unique computational abilities.  

It is anticipated that the Blue Gene/Q will be delivered to the University of Rochester in late June, making it one of the first academic institution in the nation to receive IBM’s next generation supercomputer. The supercomputer will be housed at the University’s state-of-the-art data center, which is in the process of undergoing $1.6 million in upgrades to prepare it for the new system.

“For today's leading research universities, an advanced computing capability has become a key differentiator for accelerating faculty research,” said David Lewis, vice president for Information Technology at the University of Rochester.  “This first phase of our three-way partnership with IBM and New York State, focused on accelerating health sciences research, has the potential to create breakthroughs that will enhance the health of generations to come.”

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