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Using Veterans' Health Data, Oak Ridge National Lab Takes On Massive Medical Research Project

Emily Siner | Nashville Public Radio

What might be the most ambitious health care data analysis to date is happening in East Tennessee.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is working through a massive batch of records from the Department of Veterans Affairs — the records that VA doctors keep on their more than 22 million patients. About a quarter of a million veterans have also donated their genome sequence — basically, their DNA — to the VA, which has been handed over to the national lab.

"This is the most comprehensive health care dataset in the world," says Shaun Gleason, director of computational sciences and engineering at the national lab, which is located about 20 miles west of Knoxville.

"You've got so much data, and so many different types of data, that it's very difficult for a person or group of people to sort of sift through all of it and find those patterns."

That's where the national lab's high performance computing comes in. Oak Ridge is, after all, home to the fastest supercomputer in the country. It’s also the only national lab — so far — certified to work with encrypted health data. (For security reasons, most of the computing will take place in a protected enclave within the lab — not on the fastest machine in the lab, but still a fast one.)

Researchers will be able sift through this data to find discernable patterns and create models that could prevent or treat diseases.

"Then you can get ahead of the game on new patients and say, 'Listen, you have a similar history, you have a similar genetic makeup," says Gleason. "So you can either watch more closely, or maybe you can do interventions early."

A whole industry has already arisen around analyzing huge quantities of health care data. But this collaboration between the VA and the Department of Energy, which runs ORNL, is a particularly beneficial marriage of data size and computing power, Gleason says. The lab’s findings could be beneficial to the whole medical community, not just veterans.

The VA's first priorities, though, are looking for trends around some of the biggest problems for veterans: prostate cancer, mental health and suicide, and heart disease. 

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