The Era of Personalized Medicine: An Interview with Peter Coveney

By Wolfgang Gentzsch and Sverre Jarp

September 3, 2015

What opportunities and challenges come with personalized medicine? What amount of computing is necessary to get meaningful results? Are we able to handle substantial quantities of patient data and to use them to perform predictive, mechanistic modelling and simulation? Based on this, will we be able to deliver therapies and to enhance clinical decision making. Can we guaranty secure access to personal data, as well as to powerful computational resources? Answers to these and other critical questions are discussed in this interview with Professor Peter Coveney who holds a Chair in Physical Chemistry and is Director of the Centre for Computational Science (CCS), an Honorary Professor in Computer Science and a member of CoMPLEX at University College London (UCL). He is also Professor Adjunct within the Medical School at Yale University. Prof. Coveney led the Network of Excellence within the EU FP7 Virtual Physiological Human initiative, which will form part of his keynote lecture on “The Virtual Human: In Silico Methods for Personalized Medicine” at the ISC Cloud & Big Data Conference September 28 – 30 in Frankfurt, Germany.

Peter, thanks for making time for this interview. Please tell us a bit more about one of your major research projects, the Virtual Physiological Human.

Peter Coveney: The Virtual Physiological Human (VPH) is a methodological and technological framework that enables the collaborative investigation of the human body as a single complex system. The collective framework makes it possible to share resources and observations formed by institutions and organisations creating disparate but integrated computer models of the mechanical, physical and biochemical functions of a living human body. As an EU funded initiative, VPH was at its height during Framework Programme 7 (2007-2014), but the agenda is so wide ranging and ambitious that it is something that needs to be pursued throughout the entirety of the twenty-first century.

Can you highlight the great opportunities this research will present over time for us humans?

Coveney: It enables collaborative investigation of the human body across all relevant scales and introduces multiscale methodologies into medical and clinical research, in order to allow greater personalisation of medical treatments. Best summarised by John C. Lechleiter, Ph.D., President and Chief Executive Officer, Eli Lilly and Company: “The power in tailored therapeutics is for us to say more clearly to payers, providers, and patients, — ‘this drug is not for everyone, but it is for you’ — that is exceedingly powerful.”

And what are the major challenges you and your team are currently facing, and which additional challenges do you see arising in a few years?

Coveney: There is the need for rapid development of computational science and informatics capabilities to deal with management and analysis of data. Major challenges relate to the acquisition and storage of personal medical data, and accessing security HPC facilities to process the data.

Where do you anticipate resistance from the general public and the politicians?

Peter Coveney: The sharing and use of personal medical data and the potential efficacy of treatments selected by computer.

Can you give us an example of the amount of computing and data analysis necessary to make this project a success?

Coveney: For an instance of patient specific drug treatment, as applied to a single individual, we would require of the order of 200,000 core hours with 5 terabytes of data being generated and analysed in the process of ranking the drugs concerned. This is of course in addition to all the data and processing needed to obtain the genomic data originally (again this would amount to terabytes of data and many tens of thousands core hours with current so-called “next generation sequencing” technologies). Needless to say, the answer is a moving target inasmuch as both compute and sequencing technologies are perpetually evolving and are likely to reduce dramatically over the next 5-10 year period.

This interview with Professor Peter Coveney has been conducted by Wolfgang Gentzsch and Sverre Jarp, the co-chairs of the ISC Cloud & Big Data Conference, taking place this year in Frankfurt, September 28 – 30. Prof. Coveney will explore these topics in greater detail during his keynote presentation.

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