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Texas Advanced Computing Center to Use Big Data to Explore Chronic Pain and Opioid Reliance

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Bottle of oxycodone.

AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) at The University of Texas at Austin is a key collaborator in a first-of-its-kind National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to investigate and understand the biological characteristics underlying the transition from acute to chronic pain and the subsequent dependence or addiction to opioids.

The NIH Acute to Chronic Pain Signatures program is supported by a four-year, $40 million grant and will be the most comprehensive study to date to investigate the connections of peripheral biology, brain, psychological and bio-behavioral risk factors.

“Chronic pain is an epidemic that is costing the U.S. more than any other disease, both in economic terms — with total costs on the order of $600 billion annually — and in human suffering,” said Ari Kahn, the Human Translation Genomics coordinator at TACC. “We need studies to identify ‘bio-signatures’ in humans that can tell us who is at risk for chronic pain so we can more precisely match individuals with the treatments that will help them most.”

TACC will receive $2.3 million over four years to provide cyberinfrastructure and expertise that will serve as the central nexus for information, data, analysis and collaboration.

The use of biomarkers has already revolutionized many fields of medicine — but pain, addiction and mental health have lagged far behind. Echocardiograms and cardiac biochemical markers are routinely used to diagnose heart disease. Diabetes can be diagnosed with plasma glucose tests. Imaging is routinely used to help diagnose stroke, cancer and other diseases. Viewed in this light, the need for biomarkers is especially pressing in pain research.

“These markers will characterize changes in the functions of our cells’ genetic machinery, our immune systems and our brains,” Kahn said. “We hope to develop actionable human measures that predict the transition to chronic pain for medical and public health use. We also aim to understand these measures in terms of the biological systems involved so that we can better understand the changes that drive chronic pathological pain.”

TACC will develop a meta-portal for the program — an intuitive web interface and analysis platform that provides access to powerful and extensible analytics tools and data sets, including private and public data.

“What is required is a platform for intellectual collaboration where researchers can access and query data at multiple levels to further study and validate biomarkers of acute and chronic pain in diverse data types,” Kahn said.

The program’s first project is looking at a large cohort of 1,800 patients with acute pain associated with knee replacements. Over the course of the study, the program will also look at other types of injuries or surgeries such as musculoskeletal trauma and perioperative pain events.

Neuroimaging, biomedical measurements, sensory testing and psychosocial assessments will be collected periodically after the acute pain event to form a comprehensive data set.

“Our computers are so much faster than what they would be working on in the labs, and the amount of space that’s required for storage is so much greater than what they have locally,” Kahn said. “The results of what we’re doing will impact future clinical trials and be used as a springboard for developing new drugs and help to end addiction long-term.”

TACC has a long track record of large-scale collaborations and has already built many cloud computing portals, such as DesignSafe for the natural hazards engineering community, and the Virtual Drug Discovery Portal, a graphical interface for identifying small molecules that bind to target proteins. However, infrastructure must be more than simply the virtual machines on which tools run.

“TACC creates cyberinfrastructure by combining software, computing, data storage, data repositories, visualization, expertise and high-speed networks that allow people to remotely connect to these things to innovate and make discoveries,” Kahn said.