At Oak Ridge, Thomas Zacharia, the lab director, cites a large health research project as an example of the future of supercomputing. Summit has begun ingesting and processing data generated by the Million Veteran Program. Begun in 2011, the Department of Veterans Affairs project is enlisting volunteers to give researchers access to all of their health records, contribute blood tests for genetic analysis, and answer survey questions about their lifestyles and habits. To date, 675,000 veterans have joined; the goal is to reach one million by 2021.
The eventual insights, Mr. Zacharia said, could “help us find new ways to treat our veterans and contribute to the whole area of precision medicine.”
Dr. J. Michael Gaziano, a principal investigator on the Million Veteran Program and a professor at the Harvard Medical School, said that the potential benefit might well be a modern, supercharged version of the Framingham Heart Study. That project, begun in 1948, tracked about 5,000 people in a Massachusetts town.
Over a couple of decades, the Framingham study found that heart disease — far from previous single-cause explanations of disease — had multiple, contributing causes including blood cholesterol, diet, exercise and smoking.
Today, given the flood of digital health data and supercomputers, Dr. Graziano said that population science might be entering a new golden age.
“We have all this big, messy data to create a new field — rethinking how we think about diseases,” he said. “It’s a really exciting time.”