Billionaire doctor wants to install a genome-analyzing supercomputer at a children’s hospital

The Phoenix Children’s Hospital in Arizona is about to get its own supercomputer for the purpose of performing whole genome analysis. The project, which is funded by billionaire doctor and pharmaceutical entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong, could help cure the hospital’s patients by giving doctors the data they need to prescribe personalized treatments, and ultimately is designed to build a database of children’s genomes that could help in the development of more general-purpose treatments.

The supercomputer-based system will be able to perform full genome analysis in seven days and will be the linchpin of the new Chan Soon-Shiong Children’s Precision Medicine Institute, according to a press release announcing the partnership.

In theory, there are a lot of reasons to like this effort. For starters, computing power can vastly speed the task of sequencing and then analyzing genomes. Various cloud computing providers and startups already offer resources to researchers, and the AMPLab at the University of Californa, Berkeley, is working directly with some doctors to help diagnose patients using its custom-built systems.

Building a database of genomes could also be very beneficial. There’s a sense among some in the cancer research community that we’re closer than many people might think to a cure (or at least effective personalized treatments) if we can just marry the available computing power and algorithms with enough data to start uncovering the right patterns.

Patrick Soon-Shiong. Source: Healthcare Transformation Institute

Patrick Soon-Shiong. Source: Healthcare Transformation Institute

Soon-Shiong is also the founder and CEO of a company called NantWorks, which appears to be building a top-to-bottom set of technologies for everything from cellular research to doctor-patient interaction. Presumably, the company will work in tandem with the new children’s institute, at least with regard to new approaches of analyzing genomic data.

However, as public a figure as Soon-Shiong is in the health care space, and as much money as he donates (aside from hundreds of millions of dollars in health care investments, he’s also trying to improve the foster care system in conjunction with a top law school) there’s not a lot of publicly available information about his various institutions and endeavors. Often, there’s not even a website.

One of Soon-Shiong’s recent health-care infrastructure endeavors hit a hiccup in February 2014. In 2011, the Chan Soon-Shiong Institute for Advanced Health took over operational responsibilities for the National LambdaRail high-speed research network, promising to upgrade and manage it at an estimated price tag of $100 million. The goal was to turn the network into a national network for sending genomic data among hospitals and research centers.

An email reportedly from former National LambdaRail COO Kurt Snodgrass claims about $25 million had been spent on improving the network through February “with no real opportunity to generate meaningful revenue to sustain NLR’s operations.” Because of further financial problems and obligations, the email says, “Level3 [Communications] has made the determination to turn down the network.”

It’s possible Soon-Shiong still plans to use those resources, or at least the original idea, as the basis of the NantCloud infrastructure that NantWorks claims to be building. I requested information about the status of the National LambdaRail from NantWorks but have not yet received a response.

Update: This post was updated at 5:09 p.m. to add additional information about the state of the National LambdaRail. The decision to shut it down apparently came from corporate sponsor Level3 Communications.