Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Photo of Patricia Falcone

Patricia Falcone

Deputy Director for Science and Technology

A New Paradigm for Medical Research

One of Lawrence Livermore’s most significant contributions to the nation has undoubtedly been its prominent role in the ascendancy of the computer for scientific research. The Laboratory’s insatiable demand for computational power helped drive the computer revolution and its rapid development into today’s era of high-performance computing (HPC). Livermore computing experts have spurred advances in hardware, software, code development, and simulations of physical phenomena that today support the U.S. nuclear deterrent and advance technology and scientific discovery.

Perhaps less well known is Livermore’s rich heritage in applied biological and biomedical research. In 1963, the Laboratory established a program to investigate how radiation and chemicals interact with human genetic material to produce mutations. We also worked with the Department of Energy (DOE) to establish the Human Genome Project and took on the effort to complete the mapping and sequencing of human chromosome 19. Over the past few decades, our researchers have helped change the biomedical world by developing instruments that sort cells and analyze DNA and by creating advanced simulations that mimic physiological functions, including a beating human heart.

Lawrence Livermore is now helping to lead the national effort to bring the most powerful HPC resources to bear on pressing medical issues. The initiative comes at a time of reduced pharmaceutical research and development outlays and increasing microbial resistance to antibiotics, as well as explosive growth in the quantity and complexity of biological and patient data. Livermore experts are showing how to analyze enormous and disparate data sets with new algorithms and specialized machines designed for analyzing and making sense of “big data.”

As described in the feature article, High-Performance Computing Takes Aim at Cancer, Lawrence Livermore is proud to be a major collaborator in a groundbreaking partnership between DOE and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) that represents a revolutionary approach to enhanced understanding of human biology and health, the treatment and prevention of disease, and biosecurity. The effort leverages DOE’s enormous investments in some of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, large-scale simulation techniques, advanced software, and data analytics. Three pilot programs are focused on topics ranging from analysis of single molecules to entire human populations. Lawrence Livermore researchers play important roles in all three pilot programs.

The DOE–NCI partnership resides under the umbrella of the National Strategic Computing Initiative (NSCI), which outlines a cohesive federal investment strategy in HPC. As a lead NSCI agency, DOE has been exploring how to apply HPC to societal challenges. The computing resources resident in DOE national laboratories offer enormous potential for advancing breakthroughs in medicine and healthcare. In that respect, the partnership is also an essential element of the national Cancer Moonshot Initiative, which aims to accelerate effective treatment options for cancer.

Our participation in the DOE–NCI partnership is indicative of nearly all research efforts at the Laboratory, where collaborations predominate and thrive. For example, we are working with University of California (UC) institutions to apply HPC to other projects in cancer research, including the study of breast cancer metastasis. Our computer scientists and supercomputing capabilities are also integral as part of an effort with Norwegian researchers to analyze medical data to improve screening for cervical cancer. We are also in early discussions with the UC Office of the President and UC San Francisco to combine our strengths and possibly develop an innovative research facility in the San Francisco Bay Area that takes advantage of both HPC and biomedical expertise in the region to advance medical breakthroughs. Other discussions with pharmaceutical companies focus on collaborations designed to radically reduce the time required for drug discovery.

We are looking at a true revolution in medicine made possible by the convergence of HPC, big data, and biomedical research. In addition, our work on understanding complex biomedical systems through HPC helps inform the design of new computer architectures, algorithms, and computational approaches for national security applications. The results of these efforts may well be twofold: better health for all Americans through the development of “precision medicine” and improved HPC capabilities for tackling our biggest scientific challenges.