The Industry

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Most of us know Amazon as the world's largest online retailer. Well, its cloud computing business is booming too. Companies can rent massive computing power by the hour at relatively little cost.

NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports the ability to analyze vast amounts of data in the cloud is changing lots of industries, including health care.

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WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: Dr. Michael Cunningham is doing rounds at Seattle Children's Hospital. As medical director of the Craniofacial Center, he sees young patients whose skulls have fused prematurely.

DR. MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: The biggest obvious consequence of having craniosynostosis is that your head shape gets very abnormal, and it increases the pressure inside the skull having a potential to damage the brain.

KAUFMAN: The disease seems to be caused by an abnormality in the way bone cells communicate. But Cunningham wanted much more information. And researchers, working with a huge amount of data stored in the cloud, were able to identify patients whose cells looked similar.

CUNNINGHAM: It's the first thing that's every been found that really gives us a clue as to where to look in terms of underlying cause

KAUFMAN: And that should help in coming up with better treatments. Aided by Cloud computing, researchers crunched, analyzed and sequenced massive amounts of information. Something Cunningham could not have done on his own. It would have been far too expensive and taken too long.

Work like this is going on at Google, Microsoft and other places, too, but Amazon is the leader.

MATT WOOD: I've just logged in here to the Amazon Web Services web management consult.

KAUFMAN: Matt Wood heads scientific and technical computing at Amazon Web Services. He's a heavy-duty biomedical computer expert.

Think of the cloud as a giant warehouse full of computers of all sizes and shapes. Wood says pharmaceutical companies are saving money by renting only the computing power they need and paying for it by the hour.

WOOD: We have customers who are running very large-scale drug discovery pipelines.

KAUFMAN: One, for example, wanted to run a virtual screening of 21 million chemical compounds.

WOOD: So you can imagine 50,000 laptops running this experiment, They didn't have to buy or provision or manage or cool or power any of those laptops or set them up. They could just provision what they needed at a scale that they needed it.

KAUFMAN: The entire experiment took about three hours, and the cost was less than $15,000. In contrast, Wood says, if the company had tried to do this in-house, it would have had to spend millions on computers and the job might have taken years to complete.

WOOD: So it really is transformative in the way that it can accelerate the drug discovery process, in the way that it can accelerate the scientific discovery process.

JAMES STATEN: Nearly every pharmaceutical company we speak to, at least in the R&D part of their business, is doing this.

KAUFMAN: Analyst James Staten is with Forrester Research.

STATEN: Given the economic change that this creates for them, it's extremely attractive.

KAUFMAN: What's more, when information is stored on the cloud, it's easier for researchers to collaborate. Dr. Stephen Friend of nonprofit Sage Bionetworks says even rival pharmaceutical firms have an incentive to share ideas and information.

DR. STEPHEN FRIEND: They're trying to develop their drugs for a lower cost. And so pharmaceutical companies love the de-risking that occurs by having much of the data be available for everyone to look at.

KAUFMAN: Already, consumers are reaping direct benefits from cloud computing. Forrester's James Staten points to a company called Pathwork Diagnostics. It's put a huge amount of information about cancer tissue in the cloud to speed up diagnoses.

STATEN: If a new tissue sample is submitted to them from a doctor who doesn't know what kind of cancer it is, they can put that single sample into their database on the cloud, and within less than a day, come back with the high probably diagnosis of what kind of cancer that tissue sample is.

KAUFMAN: And that would help a doctor decide on the most appropriate treatment. Amazon won't say how much revenue it makes from cloud computing, but estimates put the number at about a billion dollars, and it's growing quickly. Indeed, the company's cloud services may ultimately eclipse Amazon's retail sales. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.

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