Directline: Big ideas, big data

Directline is a regular newsletter sent to the OHSU community from Joe Robertson, president of OHSU. The newsletter is distributed internally to a broad OHSU audience and provides an interactive forum to communicate with leaders, peers and colleagues about important university-led initiatives in the community.


I’m excited to announce that OHSU and Intel Corp. are joining forces to combine Intel’s next-generation supercomputing platforms with OHSU’s unique capabilities in biomedical research to make it far faster and less costly to use an individual patient’s own genetic data to find and treat the root causes of his or her disease. This is an important and unprecedented new collaboration that will significantly advance our goal to bring personalized medicine into everyday clinical use.

The power of personalized medicine is in the genomic data now at our fingertips. But that data is also the cause of the biggest bottleneck in genomic analysis. Even in these early years of personalized medicine, the data crunch has already overwhelmed today’s fastest high-performance computers.

In the years ahead, collaborators will chip away at this problem by developing new computer architectures, algorithms, software, and workflows that are optimized for the unique information needs of personalized medicine. A new paradigm in supercomputing — known as exascale computing — is coming of age at Intel and through government-driven research initiatives around the world. The goal is to build the tools for the very highest level global challenges: nuclear security, energy efficiency, climate modeling — and human health.

The rapid pace of change in both computing and medical research is making it possible to imagine exascale biocomputers as a driver of personalized cures. It’s an exciting global effort that needs leaders — and that’s what this collaboration will deliver. But what is “exascale” computing? The prefix “exa” indicates a quantity of 1 quintillion — or, put another way, one million trillion. That’s how many floating point operations an exascale computer can perform every second — about 1,000 times more than today’s top supercomputers. That may seem mind-bogglingly fast, but our scientists will routinely need to compare billions of individual data points in the years ahead. Nothing less powerful will do.

It’s difficult to imagine two partners more suited to lead this important initiative than Intel, the world’s leading computer chip innovator, and OHSU, the birthplace of Gleevec — the molecularly targeted cancer drug that launched the personalized medicine field globally. The coincidence that we are located in the same metropolitan area only adds to the sense of excitement and opportunity — and the recognition that Oregonians have helped make this possible through their support of both players.

A new OHSU data center taking shape on West Campus will house Intel supercomputing clusters that power the initial research projects in cancer genomics and imaging. From this work will evolve a comprehensive biomedical supercomputing initiative that will advance all aspects of research and clinical care delivery. This is the same “living laboratory” model for deep academic/industry collaboration that OHSU and world-microscopy leader FEI helped pioneer two years ago.

This collaboration is Vision 2020 in action — we are changing the landscape of health by working with partners who can leverage our world-class strengths to advance all of our missions and enhance our positive global impact on human health and well-being. We are proud to be teaming up with this global computing leader and Oregon neighbor to tackle, together, one of the most important scientific and technical challenges of our time.

Until next time,


Joseph E. Robertson, Jr., M.D., M.B.A.

OHSU President