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Cloud with a Gold Lining

St. Jude Cloud shares huge amounts of cancer data at the speed of thought.

By Carole Weaver Clements, PhD; Photos by Peter Barta

“That funny cat video is amazing. I’m going to email it to my aunt,” you say.

Five minutes later, your email has crashed, and the cat video is forever stuck in limbo. And you are slapping yourself for trying to send such a huge file.

Now imagine that the file is 2 million times larger. And instead of a video, it holds information about the genetic code of thousands of childhood cancers. That data is like gold to researchers all over the world who are seeking new cures.

But how on earth are you going to send it to them?

Jinghui Zhang, PhD, has an answer—don’t send it to them. Put the data in the cloud instead. A newly unveiled cloud storage and computing portal called St. Jude Cloud holds the world’s largest public collection of pediatric cancer genomics data.

Sharing resources worldwide

In the past, downloading one of these datasets could take six months, and that’s even before the scientist could start analyzing it.

“Occasionally, users of our data would run into technical problems in the data transfer process.

 At times, we even had to ship hard drives to share the data,” says Zhang, who chairs the St. Jude Department of Computational Biology. “Now, you don’t have to download it at all. We put all of the data where scientists can access it directly.”

Once researchers are approved for access, they can see it in just minutes.

“Instead of six months, it can take just a weekend to do the analysis,” Zhang says, “because you bypass the downloading step.”

Faster, easier, more productive

Speed matters, because these analyses can reveal the genetic changes that cause a child’s cancer. Although St. Jude Cloud was launched as a tool for researchers, the hope is that one day it will allow clinicians and researchers to rapidly identify and target a cancer’s molecular weaknesses—an approach known as precision medicine.

That’s why it was important for St. Jude Cloud to be accessible to as many researchers as possible.

“We had a strong emphasis on making it easy for anyone to use,” Zhang explains. “This data is not only helpful for cancer geneticists and computer scientists, but for researchers who may not have computation backgrounds.”

Zhang and Keith Perry, chief information officer at St. Jude, co-led the development of St. Jude Cloud in a partnership with Microsoft and DNAnexus, to create a secure, easy-to-use platform to share data and unique analysis tools.

Through St. Jude Cloud, researchers can use our data and analysis tools even if they don’t have the infrastructure at their home institutions.

Keith Perry, St. Jude Chief Information Officer

“With St. Jude Cloud, we hope to break down entry barriers for researchers around the world,” Perry says. “Scientific discovery, especially in the field of cancer genomics, requires sophisticated technology. Through St. Jude Cloud, researchers can use our data and analysis tools even if they don’t have the infrastructure at their home institutions.”

The two-year project involved extensive collaboration among teams of scientists, software engineers and web specialists.

“There has been a lot of synergy among the teams,” says Clay McLeod of St. Jude Computational Biology. “Our group developed the genomics tools and data because that is our specialty. Microsoft and DNAnexus brought their own specialized expertise to the project. And Keith’s team is really focusing on the next steps. There’s an attitude that everyone truly is working together toward the same goal of curing kids.”

Man working on computer

Finding cures more quickly

In the past, it could take months to analyze data containing the genetic changes that cause a child’s cancer. Michael Rusch of St. Jude Computational Biology demonstrates how to perform that analysis quickly and easily with St. Jude Cloud.

No strings attached

The public launch of St. Jude Cloud occurred in April 2018 at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting.

 “We had an overwhelmingly positive response,” Zhang says. “We met a lot of young scientists who were really enthused about being able to access data. And people were truly impressed by the ease of the navigation through the datasets.

“One surprising reaction we saw was disbelief,” she continues. “People asked, ‘Are any strings attached to this data sharing?’ They almost thought it was too good to be true. To see that we are making such an impact on the research community is satisfying.”

And one day this cloud may yield another type of gold—new therapies.

“Our interest is in removing obstacles to sharing the data so it will be usable by others as quickly as possible,” Perry says. “Once you put St. Jude data in the cloud, and others begin to share their data, then meaningful conversations can occur.

“We hope those conversations will lead to new cures.”

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