Google has linked up with the US research foundation Autism Speaks to accelerate advances in diagnosis, subtyping and treatment of the disorder.

The partners hope the collaboration will “transform genomic research on autism spectrum disorder” as Autism Speaks will use the Google Cloud platform “to address the challenges of managing, analysing and disseminating the world’s largest library of genomic information on individuals with autism and their family members”. This is a reference to the foundation’s Aut10K programme which aims to sequence the whole genomes of 10,000 individuals in families affected by autism around the world.

However, Autism Speaks notes that the “vastly larger amount of data collected by Aut10K creates unique challenges for storage, analysis and remote access”. Previously, the transport of genomic information involved “physically shipping hard drives”, while “downloading even one individual’s whole genome in a conventional manner could take hours”.

'Game-changer' pact

This is where the internet giant comes in, and Autism Speaks chief science officer Rob Ring said that the cutting-edge capabilities of the Google Cloud can overcome these limits. He added that “connecting biological discoveries with the best in large-scale cloud storage and computation will advance not only autism research but the entire field of genomic medicine”, claiming that “working with Google is a game-changer in this story”.

Results from the first 100 genomes have already been published, in the American Journal of Human Genetics last summer, and Autism Speaks states that these findings “have advanced understanding of ASD and in some cases provided information useful in guiding diagnosis and treatment. Once completed, this historic collaboration could lead to the identification of various subtypes of autism and their individualised treatment – much as is done with cancer treatment today”.

David Glazer, engineering director for Google Genomics, said that “modern biology has become a data-limited science” and “modern computing can remove those limits”. Aut10K has already completed the sequencing of 1,000 cases, with close to 2,000 additional samples “in the queue”, and the database will be an open resource for autism researchers.