CDC harnesses technology to protect people and save lives

They harnessed immense amounts of data and used cutting-edge technology, which is always a great way to get my attention. And I was impressed enough with what I saw that I joined the board of the CDC Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping CDC do more, faster.  As a technology evangelist, I’m always investigating intriguing problems with innovative solutions. What other technological developments were going on at CDC, I wondered?

Tech Projects at CDC

For more than 50 years, CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) has gathered gold-standard information about the health and nutritional status of Americans. NHANES data have been used by researchers to reveal and study key health issues ranging from arsenic levels in food to insights into our nation’s obesity epidemic, and have provided businesses with crucial information about U.S. health trends that would be difficult to gather independently. NHANES data also help inform numerous policies, including driving a critically important decision that eliminated lead from gasoline.

And today CDC continues to work with cutting-edge technology to address public health challenges. For instance CDC is collaborating with the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), Oakridge National Laboratory and the NVIDIA Center of Excellence to leverage supercomputers and 3D printing to speed the discovery processes related to preventing 20 million hepatitis E infections each year. Thanks to the Keeneland supercomputer, researchers are accelerating numerical modeling 300 times faster than before, which will ultimately help prevent the spread and impact of hepatitis E and similar viruses.

As another example, CDC’s BioMosaic tool, a collaboration with HealthMap and BioDiaspora, maps population migration and health data. That’s important because exposures to infectious diseases differ around the world, and every year close to 500,000 immigrants come to the United States. Once fully implemented, BioMosaic will help health workers better understand the health needs of foreign-born populations in the United States and assist with public health planning in times of crisis.
CDC’s Urgent Need for Expanded Capacity


While CDC has many success stories related to harnessing technology for data analytics, there is an urgent need for CDC to continue to grow its capacity for advanced science and technology. As the nation’s health security agency, we rely on CDC to solve dangerous mysteries about what’s making people sick. Five microbes (and counting) are nearly resistant to all available drug treatments. A deadly new coronavirus that emerged in the Middle East last year continues to sicken and kill people, even as CDC, the World Health Organization (WHO) and others are investigating the virus and how it spreads. In these times of shrinking federal budgets we can’t afford to give the advantage to life-threatening diseases.

Germs will continue to evolve. Technology has to advance to keep pace.

CDC is increasingly using what’s called “whole genome sequencing” of bacteria and viruses to understand where and how diseases spread. This requires increasing amounts of bioinformatics and computing power. When cholera hit Haiti a few years ago, CDC was able to sequence the genome, but it couldn’t interpret the results because it didn’t have sufficient bioinformatics capacity. In fact, CDC had to send the information to another country for interpretation. That worries me.

It is crucial to invest in CDC’s new Advanced Molecular Detection (AMD) initiative, outlined in the President’s 2014 Budget. With support through the AMD initiative, CDC can build the critical molecular sequencing and bioinformatics capacities it needs to find and stop infectious diseases faster, more precisely and more cost effectively than currently possible.
Thinking back to my trip to Mexico, I recently heard a presentation by geneticist Craig Venter, who worked with officials in Mexico City during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. He said that efforts to stop the spread of H1N1 were delayed because the government couldn’t risk sending the virus out of the city. Venter realized that if they could have digitized the virus with a 3D printer, it could have been emailed to labs around the world and scientists could have more quickly created a vaccine.

Venter makes a great point. Advanced technology is essential to identifying and responding to disease threats, whether chronic or acute. CDC captures health and infectious disease data for the world, putting complex information together in new ways to protect the health of entire populations. For the best possible outcomes for the health of our nation—and the world—CDC must remain on the cutting edge to combat infectious diseases quickly, accurately and cost effectively.  As a nation, let’s invest in CDC’s AMD initiative so that they have the vital tools needed to protect our people and our economy.

Carlos Dominguez is senior vice president, Office of the Chairman and CEO, Cisco, and a board member of the CDC Foundation and Medidata.