How edge computing is mitigating challenges in life sciences

Life science organisations have shown their ability to perform incredible feats, empowered by robust, sustainable and scalable infrastructure systems. In this article, we explore how edge is enabling the next leaps in life sciences innovation

For any industry, scaling up to meet unanticipated demand can be challenging. When that challenge is not just for production, but also for research in a highly technical or advanced field like life sciences, the task can be daunting to say the least.

In 2020, when the scale of what was to become the global Covid-19 pandemic became known, the life sciences sector went into overdrive. Scaling up efforts for research, mass testing and vaccine production, companies found themselves with the unprecedented challenge of developing new vaccines at a hyper accelerated pace.

According to a review by McKinsey, what would normally have taken up to 10 years, was completed in just one; producing 15 vaccine candidates that received either emergency or full authorisation for use across continents across the globe.

“It is no exaggeration to say that the development and deployment of Covid-19 vaccinations is capturing and catalysing the hopes of millions or even billions of people around the world. It is a scientific, industrial, regulatory, and logistical achievement that will make history,” said McKinsey. However, according to Pfizer, this acceleration was only made possible by leveraging critical data infrastructures, those used for data gathering, aggregation, processing and analysis, and which could enable dynamic team collaboration across different countries, peer review, and regulatory oversight.

Infrastructure for life saving science

The need to be able to scale such systems rapidly, while adopting new infrastructure architectures that ensure processing power is available close to where the data is produced and consumed. Those such as edge computing systems, were critical in this monumental effort.

Furthermore, the UK and Ireland played critical roles in this mass effort for the good of all humanity. As a life sciences hub, Ireland, for example, hosts ten of the major global life science companies, and represents a further 20 of them. Additionally, the UK hosts a wealth of the pioneering life sciences and global pharmaceutical organisations, many of which have indigenous roots. McKinsey has dubbed the UK as a global leader and “Europe’s leading biotech hub,” something clear to see with organisations such as Exscientia, AstraZeneca and BioNTech leading the way in terms of drug discovery and disease prevention.

>See also: BioNTech acquires InstaDeep for £562m to boost drug discovery efforts

Investment is also continuing across both territories at a rapid pace. Eli Lilly’s €400m investment to expand its Limerick facility, for example, will allow the company to expand its capacity to make innovative new medicines that can help treat some of the world’s most serious illnesses.

World-leader in genomics

Another key example of life-saving research is the Wellcome Sanger Institute. Based in the UK near Cambridge, the institute uses genomic data to advance the understanding of human DNA. This is a highly data intensive operation that provides the genomic data to a wide variety of healthcare and life sciences organisations, as well as commercial partners.

Computing has always been central to the science at Sanger, and the institute relies on genomic sequencing machines that can produce upwards of 2TB of data per day. All of which must be stored, processed, and analysed locally, and made available for other research organisations.

A key component in facilitating the institute are its data centre and edge computing capabilities. Sending more than 2TB of data, per machine per day, back to a central data lake for primary processing would be cumbersome, impractical, and expensive. However, the institute hosts its own dedicated on-site infrastructure to alleviate this challenge, Europe’s largest genomic data centre, and each of its genomic sequencers are protected with distributed power protection equipment including uninterruptible power supplies (UPS).

The volume and velocity of data makes cloud services unsuitable for the Institute’s requirements, and means the physical location of its 4MW data centre is critical. Operating as an edge computing facility, the data centre is where the data and the mapped genomes are analysed by the scientific community and commercial partners based on campus.

The ability to have primary processing power close to where the data is produced is what allows life sciences organisations such as the institute to carry out its vital work. The savings made by having reliable and efficient data centre infrastructures that can be managed through a single pane of glass will also help the Institute reduce its data centre operating costs. This, in turn, means Sanger can invest more funding in research so that new discoveries can be made more quickly.

Data centres and the edge

Edge computing systems must, however, be supported by a robust data centre infrastructure which supports that available, reliable, resilient infrastructure – the rapid deployment of which requires quick-to-scale solutions and new design methodologies.

Prefabricated, modular data centres, populated with the most energy efficient infrastructure equipment gives life sciences and biotech companies the flexibility to put data centres exactly where they need them. The pre-designed, pre-tested and standardised nature of these technologies also enables the ability to meet compressed deployment times, but with the reassurance of resilience from the moment it’s operational.

The combination of these edge computing architectures, combined with the power, scalability, and easy to deploy modular data centres have the power to multiply the efforts of life sciences, towards the scale of the vaccine achievements of the last few years.

>See also: Trends in data centre sustainability

Cybersecurity at the edge

In fact, edge computing has been cited as addressing some of the other issues experienced by the life sciences sector. The value of the data and the criticality of pharmaceutical research has made it a particular target for cyber criminals, with ransomware attacks an increasingly common occurrence.

Edge computing has the ability to mitigate the risks associated with healthcare and life sciences, as its ability to process data closer to where it is generated and consumed offers reduced exposure to attack through faster detection, a smaller attack surface and accelerated time to response.

Next generation software systems that combine the power of the cloud with AI and machine learning capabilities also bolster cybersecurity significantly. Such tools offer comprehensive insight into critical vulnerabilities, with some being able to proactively identify legacy platforms in need of patching and modernisation.  These comprehensive monitoring and management tools are utilised across edge computing and data centre environments to ensure that life sciences infrastructure systems are secure, resilient and safe from both downtime and vulnerability.

One cannot underestimate the contribution of life sciences to the health and wellbeing of the global population. These organisations continue to demonstrate the ability to step up and perform incredible feats of innovation and safeguard humankind. Supported by data infrastructures that can match the pace, agility, and reliability of the industry, innovation in drug discovery and disease prevention will continue at pace. Edge computing, with its unique abilities to support the modern needs of life sciences, will ensure that nothing holds back the pace of transformation and that its reach continues to benefit every person on earth.

Marc Garner is senior vice-president, Secure Power Division at Schneider Electric Europe.


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