Google has unveiled Google Genomics, a proposal for a web-based application programming interface (API) designed to import, process, store, and search genomic data at scale, while being simple to use.

At the same time, Google said it joined the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health, an international effort aimed at developing common approaches for responsible, secure, and effective sharing of genomic and clinical information in the cloud with the research and healthcare communities.

The internet search and services giant is one of 146 top technology, healthcare, research, and disease advocacy organizations worldwide in the global alliance, which vowed that its harmonized standards will meet the highest standards of ethics and privacy.

Established last year, the alliance has drawn numerous research institutions, five of which were named interim host institutions: the Broad Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute / European Bioinformatics Institute.

The alliance has also drawn members that include drug developers (Amgen, Biogen Idec, and Merck & Co.), sequencing giants (BGI-Shenzhen and Illumina), and cloud-based genomic analysis firm DNAnexus – which in January said it closed on a $15 million Series C financing round co-led by Google Ventures.

Google Ventures has also invested in direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing company 23andMe. And in September, Google extended its healthcare presence by launching Calico, a new company focused on developing technologies to fight aging and associated diseases. Calico is led by Arthur Levinson, the chairman of Roche’s Genentech subsidiary and former CEO before the company got bought, as well as chairman of Apple and former director of Google. Not all Google initiatives in healthcare have been successful. In 2011, the company shut down an electronic health records effort with the same goal as Calico, but which failed to catch on.

To launch Google Genomics, Google has previewed its implementation of the API built on its cloud infrastructure, including sample data from public datasets like the 1,000 Genomes Project, and made public a collection of in-progress open-source sample projects built around the common API.

In unveiling the API as a limited release for discussion by the research community, Google cautioned that not all of the interface’s functionality had been implemented yet, and that the company’s focus to date in launching Google Genomics had been the shape of the API more than its performance.

But Google also laid out what it sees as the benefits of its API to prospective users: It allows users to focus on science rather than tech details such as servers and file formats; store genomic data securely so that private data remains private, while public data is available to the community anywhere; and process as much data as they need, all at once. For example, the API would let users import data for entire cohorts in parallel, as well as search and slice data from many samples in a single query.

“With these first steps, it is our goal to support the global research community in bringing the vision of the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health to fruition,” Jonathan Bingham, product manager with Google, said in a post on the company’s research blog. “Imagine the impact if researchers everywhere had larger sample sizes to distinguish between people who become sick and those who remain healthy, between patients who respond to treatment and those whose condition worsens, between pathogens that cause outbreaks and those that are harmless. Imagine if they could test biological hypotheses in seconds instead of days, without owning a supercomputer.”

The blog post included a link allowing would-be users to request access to the API for their research, and requesting that they tell about themselves and their research interests: “We will let you know when we’re ready to work with more partners.”

“Together with the members of the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health, we believe we are at the beginning of a transformation in medicine and basic research, driven by advances in genome sequencing and huge-scale computing,” Bingham added.

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