Autism Speaks is teaming up with Google on what the research foundation says is the world's largest database of whole genomes, a move that could accelerate research into autism spectrum disorder.
The Internet giant will house research data from 10,000 complete genomes of people with autism and their family members on its computer servers and will provide tools to analyze the data.
Harnessing Google's massive computing power could lead to a better understanding of what causes various types of autism and how to treat them, said Bob Wright, chairman, CEO and co-founder of Autism Speaks.
"This is the only way to break down the data barriers that surround autism," Wright said.
The Internet giant launched Google Genomics in February to respond to a growing challenge: Scientific research is producing more data than ever before, but that has made all of that data even tougher to store, analyze and interpret, especially for nonprofits, universities and research hospitals.
That's especially true in genomics. Sequencing one genome produces more than 100 gigabytes of data. Sequencing 1 million genomes would produce more than 100 petabytes of data.
Google is putting the data and analytic tools on computer servers so that scientific researchers can process and mine as much data as they want. The data can then be accessed remotely so that researchers can collaborate.
That could be a real boon for autism research, Wright said. Genetic research has led to major medical breakthroughs for other diseases such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's.
"Modern biology has become a data-limited science," said David Glazer, engineering director for Google Genomics. "Modern computing can remove those limits."
And, with the growing digitization of health care and science, it could also turn out to be a viable business.
"Google, like most of society, is realizing that health is of growing importance and growing opportunity for investment and improvement," Glazer said.
Autism Speaks says it has collected the largest private collection of DNA samples to launch "AUT10K" with help from Hospital for Sick Children's Centre for Applied Genomics in Toronto. Dr. Steve Scherer, who directs the center, will be the director of AUT10K. An estimated 1 in 68 children in the U.S. is on the autism spectrum.
Autism Speaks will now store that data on Google's cloud platform. The database will be available to autism researchers.
"Google has all this great data analysis, processing and storage capability and that's exactly what genomics needs," Glazer said.
This isn't the first time Google has explored opportunities in health care and science.
Google backed Calico, which is analyzing genomes to better understand and fight aging. The effort is being led by Arthur Levinson, chairman of Roche's Genentech subsidiary and a former Google director.
Google invested in genetic testing company 23andMe. Its secretive Google X lab is also developing a smart contact lens to help diabetes patients.
One of Google's early efforts did not pan out: an effort to accelerate the adoption of electronic health records. Google shuttered that project in 2011 after failing to attract users.
Neither Autism Speaks nor Google would comment on the business arrangement between the two organizations.
Glazer called it "standard."
"This is a win win," he said. "They are buying our services and we are working with them to refine those services as we go."