Project Will Develop Technologies to Protect Privacy of Patient Information


University professors are developing a secure and compliant cyberinfrastructure that would enable researchers to quickly access and share vast amounts of biomedical data with external collaborators and industry partners.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

In the current age of “Big Data” in the healthcare industry, massive amounts of digital information are produced, stored, shared, analyzed, processed and transferred around the world from clinics, hospitals, universities, government agencies, pharmaceutical laboratories and insurance companies every second.

To help protect the privacy and security of this wealth of medical information from cyberattacks, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a three-year grant totaling nearly $1 million to a team of researchers led by Prof. Yan Luo of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering to develop a “secure and compliant cyberinfrastructure for translational research.”

Translational research, also known as translational medicine or translational science, refers to the effort of “translating” or harnessing knowledge from basic biomedical research in the lab into potentially new drugs, therapies, medical devices, diagnostic screening or treatment for patients and bringing these innovations to market.

“Translational research has been driven by the increasing amount of diverse datasets collected from medical instruments, sensors, patient records and genetic samples,” says Luo, who is the director of the university’s Advanced Computing and Networking Systems Laboratory and the principal investigator (PI) for the NSF project.

“Our project will explore and experiment with new ways of sharing data across different organizations that are compliant with HIPAA,” he explains. HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, is a U.S. law that mandates data privacy and security provisions for safeguarding medical information.

“This will enable new efficient ways of collaboration among patients, medical researchers and practitioners, potentially benefiting global digital healthcare and personalized medicine,” Luo says.

Prof. Yan Luo and student in the lab Image by Edwin L. Aguirre

Electrical and computer engineering Prof. Yan Luo, right, works with a graduate student in the university’s Advanced Computing and Networking Systems Lab at Ball Hall on North Campus.

Luo’s co-PIs for the project include UML computer science Assoc. Prof. Yu Cao, Elizabethtown College Asst. Prof. Peilong Li and UMass Medical School Prof. Silvia Corvera and Jomol Mathew, Ph.D.

From Medical Research to Homeland Security

The NSF envisions “cyberinfrastructure” as a collaborative research environment in which computing systems, data storage systems, visualization tools, advanced instruments and scientists are all linked by high-speed networks to provide powerful capabilities for driving innovation and discoveries not otherwise possible within a single institution.

According to Luo, clinical researchers rely heavily on cyberinfrastructure to understand trends, derive correlations and/or identify anomalies, which are instrumental to the accurate diagnosis and effective treatment of diseases as well as the discovery of “precision” drugs that targets specific illnesses.

A secure cyberinfrastructure enables investigators to quickly access and share vast datasets with their external counterparts and industry partners, and it allows for faster and more efficient virtual experiments and simulations as well as building better health profiles and predictive models for individual patients.

“In this context, the security of patient data is critical,” Luo notes.

He says the NSF project will enable sharing and computing of sensitive datasets between private computer clusters, a shared high-performance computing facility (such as the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke) and/or a HIPAA-compliant cloud.

“We will leverage technologies such as software-defined infrastructure [SDI], blockchain and secure domain name system to extend the boundary of computing to sensitive and private data,” says Luo. SDI refers to the operation of IT infrastructure entirely under the control of software and with little or no human intervention.

“This is the first project to bring the agility and resilience of SDI to clinical research activities,” notes Luo. “The resulting infrastructure can be applied to a wide range of cyberinfrastructure that handles sensitive data, including homeland security and counterterrorism.”