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We may still be a long way from the diagnostic wizardry of the holographic Doctor on Star Trek, but technology is already improving our health in some astonishing ways.  

From diving deep into our genes to discover why our bodies sometimes betray us to figuring out how to coax more people to get their flu shot, computers—particularly supercomputers—are advancing the frontiers of medicine every day. 

1. What’s the connection between addiction and your family tree?

<strong>Opioid addiction rates</strong> in the US have risen dramatically in recent years, but individual genetic traits may play a significant role. Courtesy Alaa Fadag.As most of us have heard, opioid addiction has reached epidemic proportions around the globe. Experts propose multiple causes, from globalization and economic despair to increased availability. But despite these factors, why do some people succumb while others remain healthy?

Genes are responsible for about half of an individual’s risk for alcohol and drug addiction. Pinpointing these traits could lead to improved treatments, but the sheer number of protein-coding genes in the human genome makes it like searching for a needle in a haystack. Researchers at Indiana University used the Big Red II+ supercomputer to analyze over 12 million genetic markers in a matter of days.

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2. Can one unvaccinated apple can infect the whole barrel?

Did you get your flu shot this year? If yes, congratulations! Not only are you less likely to spend a week in bed shivering and coughing, you’ve also earned your good citizen award. Herd immunity is a real thing, offering extra protection to the most vulnerable: infants, pregnant women, the elderly, and the immunocompromised.

<strong> Superflu. </strong>An army nurse attends patients during the great Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919. Recent research harnesses high-performance computing to discover that choice of vaccine yields the most effective health and cost benefits over the long term.If you didn’t get your shot, you’re one of the more than fifty percent of adults who ignore the warnings. Maybe you’re just not that into needles. But whatever the reason, public health officials really, really want to know what they can do to change your mind.

Enter supercomputers. Scientists from the University of Pittsburgh and Soongsil University used a public health-dedicated supercomputer to find out if offering a choice of vaccines (some needle-free) would reduce flu cases and make vaccination more cost effective. What they discovered could influence your vaccine decision next year.

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 3. How hard can you hit someone?

“It's hard to investigate brain injury experimentally — we can't just hit people on the head and see what happens,” says Reuben Kraft of Penn State (PSU). Which is why scientists often turn to computer models to investigate the effect of concussions and TBI.

In Kraft’s research, when a football player takes a hit to the head, biomechanical sensors collect data about the force and location of the impact and send it to a HPC system. A complex brain model simulates the results and provides a real-time diagnosis of damage that can be sent to coaches, doctors, or parents to make sure the athlete stops playing and gets necessary treatment.

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4. Is the answer to cancer hiding in your gut?

<strong>Your little friends.</strong> New metagenomics research points to a non-invasive method for gauging the health of an individual's intestinal bacteria. Courtesy SDSC.The microbiome of the human digestive tract is emerging as one of the richest untapped sources of insight into human health. Genetic sequencing of the trillions of bacteria, viruses, and other microbes that live within our large intestine may lead to breakthroughs in cancer immunotherapy and treatments for Parkinson’s disease.

The problem is these microbes live in a very dense ecology of up to 1 billion microbes per gram.

Researchers at the Center for Microbiome Innovation used the Gordon supercomputer at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) to analyze around 600 billion DNA bases. Machine learning then classified changes in gut bacteria proteins to differentiate healthy and diseased states.

5. Can your phone make you a kinder, gentler person?

Handheld help. A new technology can predict your emotional state and alert you when you're feeling blue. Courtesy PSU Institute for Cyberscience. 

Ulcers. Depression. Diabetes. Asthma attacks. Heart disease. All of these conditions can be triggered or exacerbated by stress. Multiple studies have shown that techniques such as meditation and acts of kindness can reduce stress. But when your computer has just crashed and your presentation is due in an hour, it can be hard to remember how to breathe, let alone practice compassion.

To help out with that, Penn State scientist Zita Oravecz is developing an app that predicts a person’s emotional state using data from smartphones and wearable health monitors. Oravecz used PSU’s high-performance computing to speed up the development of her model and to help the algorithms work in real-time. So that reminder to take a breath or compliment a co-worker comes before you blow your top.

To boldly go

Today’s computing power is expanding the frontiers of medical research at warp speed. Analyses that would take 20 years to process on a desktop computer running 24 hours a day, can now be completed in a matter of weeks. And with the much anticipated advent of exascale computing in the next 5-10 years, there’s no telling what we will accomplish. Medical science and human health may boldly go where no one has gone before.

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