How genomics could change public health

By Equinix

Eric Hui, Business Development Director - IoT Ecosystems, Equinix Asia-Pacific, shares how genome sequencing could revolutionise public health.

The story of the fight against Covid-19 is the story of genome sequencing. Genome sequencing was critical towards Moderna’s record speed vaccine development, highlighted The New York Times.

With genome sequencing, researchers can analyse virus samples and detect how viruses and diseases change over time. The technique is increasingly central to managing pandemics, tackling rare diseases, and personalising health.

Here are three ways genome sequencing could transform public health. Eric Hui, Business Development Director - IoT Ecosystems, Equinix Asia-Pacific shares more.

Managing pandemics

First, genome sequencing allows researchers to quickly identify different variants of a disease. Before Covid-19, governments used it to test for Zika cases and monitor its growth, Dr. Swaine Chen, Senior Research Scientist, Genome Institute of Singapore told GovInsider in 2018.

Genome sequencing also helped countries identify new Covid variants such as Delta and Omicron quickly. This helped countries quickly prepare and respond to new surges, noted the World Health Organisation (WHO), Africa.

During a global pandemic, countries need to be able to share an immense amount of data patterns with one another, as well as clinics, labs and the WHO, explains Hui. This was important as different populations may respond differently to treatments.

“What if there was a person of non-Asian descent in Asia who needed a slightly different treatment?” poses Hui.

Due to the high volume of data, these institutions could not share information across standard Internet connections, which can be slow, unstable, and insecure. Genomics England addressed this challenge by using Equinix Fabric to share data quickly and securely This allowed them to collaborate with researchers in UK universities.

Cracking cold cases

Research across borders can also identify how older diseases have developed over time. For instance, a group of academics across countries such as India, Brazil, and Portugal have been researching how strains of tuberculosis had evolved in different countries.

However, this kind of research project cannot afford to buy dedicated servers to host data as they face funding limits. Transmitting data through the Internet is a poor alternative, as it can slow research progress considerably and add data security risks, notes Hui.

Rather than buying dedicated servers, they rented servers to work together. The researchers tapped on Equinix tools such as Equinix Metal™ that let them adjust storage and computing power according to their needs.

This saved costs and sped up collaboration. Rather than waiting for researchers elsewhere to complete and send over data, researchers worked in tandem with each other.

Identifying and treating rare diseases

Third, genome sequencing can help find ways to treat rare diseases. At least 80 per cent of these diseases are genetic, according to Genomics England. Genome sequencing is a powerful tool for understanding and finding treatments for them.

This is the primary aim of the 100,000 Genome Project run by Genomics England, which sequenced 100,000 human genomes containing rare diseases.

Genomics England has since set a new target of 5 million genomes. To process 5 million genomes, Genomics England would need to analyse 150 petabytes of data. This is equivalent to 75 trillion printed pages.

The cloud can help genome organisations power this research. It can store and process data on a practically “infinite” level, shares Hui.
Platform Equinix can help build AI models that researchers can use to quickly analyse genomes, rather than developing their own tools. It also allows them to adjust the amount of storage they need based on research intensity.

As health data needs to be kept private, Genomics England stores and processes its data internally first. Then, it uses tools on the cloud to analyse anonymised genomic data, shares Hui. This analysis has helped to develop vaccines and treatments during the Covid-19 pandemic, an insight echoed by Amazon Web Services.

Enabling precision health

Looking ahead, public health may turn to genomic research to provide precision healthcare, shares Hui. Precision healthcare uses genome sequencing to personalise healthcare for each patient’s needs.

For example, the Singapore Undiagnosed Diseases Research for Kids programme used genomic testing to diagnose a 1 year old child suffering from persistent epilepsy. When they discovered that the child had a rare genetic disorder, they could select the correct remedy to treat the child, shared National University of Singapore.

Government privacy frameworks can ensure that data remains secure, he notes. Policymakers can consider using blockchain to secure and trace instances of data sharing, Hui shares.
Equinix works with industry leading technology partners to ensure data security policies are implemented properly.

The potential for genome sequencing to tackle diseases runs the gamut. From quickly dousing the flames of a new pandemic to cracking genetic mysteries, genome sequencing and fast data sharing may transform how healthcare addresses illnesses.