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June 30, 2014

Supercomputers Aid in Fight Against Superbugs

Karen Padmore, Operations Director at High Performance Computing Wales
e-coli graphic

‘Typhoid’, ‘cholera’ and ‘e-coli’ are words that paint an unpleasant picture of a bacterial infection. It is estimated that there are 3 to 5 million cholera cases across the world resulting in between 100,000 and 120,000 deaths every year. Bacterial infections spread widely, and they spread quickly. Sometimes it’s only a matter of hours before symptoms become apparent and in some cases, fatal.

In the fight to combat bacterial diseases, the medical industry has been arming itself with the power of supercomputing. Thanks to the speeds at which supercomputers can perform complex and high-volume calculations and simulations, scientists can develop new strands of research and access data analysis faster than ever before. And thanks to the power of supercomputers, which can run trillions of operations per second, the enormous volumes of medical datasets found in scientific testing can be broken down into actionable data, allowing researchers to analyse different ways of tackling bacterial infections.

Supercomputing is not only being used to develop new ways of combatting bacterial infections, but has also been instrumental in helping researchers to discover even more about how bacterial diseases can originate and the transformation of bacteria into harmful infections. Farzana Rahman, a PHD Student at The University of South Wales’ Genomics and Computational Biology department, has been using supercomputing technology to understand bacterial evolution to help transform the current state of antibiotic treatments. The alarming rise of drug resistant infections such as tuberculosis and MRSA has left many scientists and doctors fearing a potential antibiotic crisis.

Farzana’s research intends to help anticipate drug resistance and help GPs to select the most suitable antibiotics for their patients. Using HPC Wales’ supercomputing technology, the team have begun developing a model that predicts how harmless bacteria develops into deadly strains such as E Coli 0157, which can result in kidney failure in children. The research aims to predict from an early stage whether there is a risk that existing bacteria, such as that present in an open wound, could develop into lethal forms of the substance. The research will help to develop our understanding of the complex biological processes that occur in the smallest cells in living organisms, contributing to the broader objective of personalised medicine.

The supercomputing technology used by Farzana can help power personalised medicine, rapidly analysing data to give doctors high-quality information about their patient’s DNA samples in a matter of hours as opposed to weeks, allowing suitable medication for bacterial infections to be prescribed that is tailored to the individual requirements of each patient, helping to save many lives.

Farzana Rahman and the University of South Wales’ research is a testament to the importance of speed and how the ability to deliver results quickly and effectively can make an enormous difference to health and wellbeing on a global scale. With the help of supercomputing, we can begin to to put bacterial infections on the back foot.

As technology has progressed over the last decade, the requirement for supercomputing has become universal. Once reserved for only the most prestigious and well-funded institutes and technology conglomerates, supercomputing has now become a crucial component in the world of science and technology. Thanks to grants and funding from the UK and the EU, medical facilities and universities from across Europe have begun to take advantage of the enormous power that supercomputers can harness; enabling innovative medical advances in areas such as cancer research and vaccination programmes throughout Africa.

With many supercomputing providers embracing remote access technology, users do not have to own the hardware or software and can access the powerful technology through simplified web browser interfaces. Many providers now also offer comprehensive training programmes to help users utilise the technology and customise it to help achieve their individual goal.

Given the alarmingly widespread nature of antibiotic resistance, the pressure is on for scientists to develop new ways to combat bacterial infections. Thanks to the power of supercomputing, scientists now have a helping hand in the battle against bacteria.

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