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ORNL Researchers Preparing to Revolutionize Health Care, Computing via VA Data

Researchers have used the computational and analytic resources at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to tackle issues across the scientific spectrum.

From cosmology to materials to the design of safer, more efficient nuclear reactors, ORNL’s leadership in scientific computing and data analytics is critical for the numerous and varied research communities attempting to tackle some of nature’s most complex mysteries.

Now the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is looking to DOE, and specifically ORNL, to improve care for America’s veterans and solve some of the most pressing health care challenges of our time.

The VA hosts a treasure trove of invaluable health data through its Million Veterans Program (MVP), which is currently the largest genomic dataset on the planet, and its Corporate Data Warehouse, which houses the health data of more than 22 million veterans; ORNL hosts some of the most powerful computers and brightest minds in computational science and big data, making the partnership a powerful one. 

Known as MVP-CHAMPION (Computational Health Analytics for Medical Precision to Improve Outcomes Now), the partnership aims “to improve the health and wellbeing of our veterans, and the population as a whole, through better understanding of underlying causes of diseases and conditions, hereditary factors and health history using big data, high-performance computing, and data science.”

It will initially target the three primary health conditions facing America’s veterans (prostate cancer, mental health and cardiovascular diseases), but future expansion of the partnership could lead to better understanding of the underlying causes for a range of health issues.

As a result of the partnership, ORNL is now the only institution outside of the VA to host protected VA health data. The transfer of such large volumes of data, and its continued security, has required ORNL to construct a robust, novel computational infrastructure that must be thoroughly vetted and tested before it is made available to researchers, an effort that began in March when ORNL hosted the inaugural MVP-CHAMPION hands-on workshop.

The purpose of the workshop, said organizer Edmon Begoli of the laboratory’s Computer Science and Engineering Division, was simply to bring together the small group of DOE and VA researchers and develop methods and algorithms to mine the VA’s data. And improve they did—in some cases analyses were accelerated from hours to mere seconds!

"We are building something that has not been done before at this scale in this area of research,” said Begoli. “We are building a complete medical data representation for a large group of people which will give us the ability to study the underlying causes of medical conditions, be they related to genetics, the environment, or lifestyle."

The ORNL team originally planned for a very small gathering of no more than seven or eight attendees, but once word spread, more than 40 experts in mathematics, genetics, and computational biology made the trip to Oak Ridge, Tenn., for the chance to be a part of this important health care data analytics project.”

Attendees were leaders in a range of pertinent fields and included Dr. Mike Gaziano and Dr. Kelly Cho of the VA’s Massachusetts Veterans Epidemiology Research and Information Center and Harvard School of Medicine; Dr. Ben McMahon of Los Alamos National Laboratory; Dr. David Gagnon of Boston University and VA Boston Healthcare System; Dr. Ravi Madduri of Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago; and many others.

“The VA with its willing partners, spectacular health data resources, and research experience combined with the DOE’s computing power and expertise forms an unprecedented collaboration to improve the health of veterans and all Americans by better use of health care data,” said Gaziano. “Through the visionary leadership of Secretaries Shulkin and Perry we can demonstrate how different parts of government can work together to solve big problems that impact us all.”

While the purpose of the hands-on workshop was technically tied to the MVP-CHAMPION program, Begoli said it’s also applicable to other health initiatives such as the Cancer Moonshot, a DOE–National Cancer Institute partnership that aims to double the rate of progress toward a cure (i.e., to make a decade of advances in cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and care in 5 years).

For now, however, the program has fostered the collaborative environment that Begoli said is so critical for success.

He and his colleagues from across the DOE laboratory complex, along with researchers from the VA, also participated in a recent DOE Office of Science- and VA-sponsored summit aimed at stating the long-term research vision of the partnership and aligning resources with important, practical medical research problems. 

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit