Pioneering the next generation of genomics research—in the cloud

Australian National University (ANU) is the top-ranked university in Australia, and the 24th best university in the world.[1] Researchers at ANU contribute to this prestigious ranking by advancing knowledge and conducting groundbreaking studies, including cutting-edge genomics research.

Over the past year, Dr. Sebastian Kurscheid, a research fellow in the Department of Genome Sciences, has turned to Microsoft Azure to save time managing technology so he can focus more effectively on his research. Microsoft Azure also allows Sebastian to share research results quickly and securely with fellow researchers around the world.

BizData, a leading data analytics and Microsoft partner company, built a solution to take the Department’s existing genomics workflows into Azure, providing access to powerful computing resources on demand, capable of handling significant data volumes.

“Leveraging the cloud is an important aspect to helping our research community use more of the funding dollar to focus more on analysis and less on procuring hardware,” according to Nadav Rayman, director at BizData.

Cloud computing with Microsoft Azure adds many analytics capabilities which are not easily available on-premise. This allows Sebastian to enhance and accelerate his research on genome organisation to better understand and contribute to the prevention and treatment of cancer

Azure offers Sebastian and fellow researchers two monumental capabilities. First, researchers can now store and process data in a more flexible way than they could with their existing technology. Exploring correlations between the billions of data points and the structures of the human genome is a highly demanding computational task. Azure provides the elastic compute-power and analytical tools needed to power those tasks, discover correlations, and power new discoveries. Second, Azure provides a safe and secure way to share and collaborate on these discoveries with fellow researchers anywhere in the world, without the having to wait until the research is published, moving research faster along than ever before.

A shift in technology leads to a larger scale of discovery

Every human cell contains billions of genetic data points. Finding correlations with so many variables at work is a massive challenge. Researchers have been exploring the structure of the human genome since the early 1950s. About a decade ago computers began to transform genetic research. Modern technology has provided enough processing power to analyse multitudes of genetic data in reasonable amounts of time.

At the same time advances in analytics, machine learning and data science mean that researchers can spend more time on the science rather than managing the computing aspects of their work.

Sebastian and his team have access to the University’s high performance computing clusters that provide the level of compute needed for high-volume data processing.

Having access to Azure augments that by allowing a hybrid computing environment to be established that turbo charges the team’s research efforts.

The flexibility, speed and the output that is possible with today’s cloud computing resources means that  researchers can get results  in hours, not weeks.

Sebastian adds, “I estimate over the last three-and-a-half years I’ve probably spent a year on the technical aspects of enabling our research. So, I would say Azure would probably reduce that time by 50 to 75 percent.”

But still, Sebastian says, “these data sets keep getting larger and larger and we do need more storage, more processing power …. We really do have an exponential growth in data.” As researchers avail themselves of more and detailed data, the demand for faster, less cumbersome and more flexible computing grows as well.

On-demand cloud computing addresses the challenge posed by the explosion of data. Cloud computing lets researchers spend more time researching and less time dealing with technology, and augmenting computer clusters and on-premise servers with on-demand cloud computing options that frees up time and money for more and better research.

Making the leap to the cloud

Microsoft Australia helped Sebastian and his team “make the leap” from a private server and also translated components of the lab’s analysis pipeline into a format that was portable enough to put onto the cloud. The process required some time and effort up front, but now that it’s complete, Sebastian’s lab can lead the way for others to follow suit.

“Before we made the leap,” Sebastian explains, “my colleagues and I looked at offerings from several technology companies: Google, Apple, Amazon Web Services, and Microsoft. In the end, we chose Microsoft Azure because of its superior data analytics capabilities.”

“On top of that, there’s clearly a very deep repository of, for example, teaching aids about data analytics that Microsoft makes freely available. And I can see how that is an important factor for differentiating competitors.” Sebastian actually found the process of migrating to the cloud to be relatively straightforward.

“You can actually do this in a few days of work, and if you follow a certain blueprint, you can very quickly leverage these available services for yourself,” he says. Now that Microsoft Azure stores, manages, and protects the lab’s valuable data, Sebastian breathes a sigh of relief: “I’m a researcher, I’m not a server administrator.”

Sharing for the sake of science

Beyond lifting the burden of data processing off researchers’ shoulders, cloud-based academic research offers another, equally groundbreaking opportunity: with Azure, data in the cloud can be shared quickly and easily with other credentialed researchers. Before modern cloud technology, scientists generally relied on word of mouth to share new discoveries, or else waited until they were published in scientific journals—sometimes years after the original research was completed. Until now, researchers didn’t have a reliable way of quickly making their findings or ongoing studies open to their colleagues.

“The cloud allows researchers to collaborate on results in a more seamless and secure way. Due to the huge volumes of data generated when sequencing genomes, a global service like Azure introduces new way of sharing this data across the university or with international research collaborators,” says Clint Harris, a technology strategist at Microsoft Australia who worked with Sebastian and his team as they switched to Microsoft Azure.

Sebastian explains, “Essentially all research in Australia, in a larger proportion than that of the US and around the world, is publicly funded. So, we are receiving taxpayer funds to do our work. At minimum I would say we have a certain obligation to make the results of our research available to the broader community.” Not only can valid research reach “citizen scientists or other interested researchers,” but Sebastian believes that open access to data will lead to better dissemination within the scientific community, as more researchers read, share, and cite new studies.

By attending more to the research, and less to the technology, and by leveraging the best of Azure cloud computing, researchers like Sebastian will pioneer the next generation of genomics breakthroughs. And thanks to on-demand cloud computing, we may see that next breakthrough faster than we expected. It is the sort of research that universities were always meant to contribute: a public institution pioneering a public good.

Learn how researchers around the world are using Microsoft Azure to enable them to accelerate their research:






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