A new partnership between Montgomery County and several of the state’s top institutions has the potential to spur groundbreaking medical advances through the use of cutting-edge computer technology, officials said this week.
The deal, which could lead to the creation of more than 10 million square feet of development, has the potential to transform North Bethesda, an area once known for luxury retail but which has languished since the demise of White Flint Mall. .
The MoU will create the Institute for Health Computing. Government and academic leaders have said their goal will be to create a world-class discovery center, where computers can discern disease patterns and treatments much faster than before.
“We are witnessing an unprecedented revolution in healthcare that is driven by biomedical innovation, digitization of medical records and advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence,” said Bruce Jarrell, president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore, in a press release. “This new Institute will include all of these elements in a synergistic effect that will transform our healthcare system.
University of Maryland Medical System CEO Mohan Suntha said it’s possible that one day “the nation will describe Montgomery County as the Silicon Valley of health informatics.”
In addition to being home to the National Institutes of Health, Montgomery County is home to a thriving life sciences industry, largely spawned by the federally funded Human Genome Project. The partnership aims to develop both the public and private research that is already being done there.
The memorandum of understanding was signed by County Executive Marc Elrich (D) and leaders from the University of Maryland, Baltimore; the University of Maryland, College Park; and the University of Maryland Medical System.
The $90 million partnership is expected to spawn a large-scale development just north of the Capital Beltway along Rockville Pike, an area well served by roads and subways. Elrich said the site can accommodate between 11 million and 15 million square feet of development. The institute plans to apply for federal grants.
The concept of a computerized health research center in Montgomery County took years to develop. Elrich said the idea gained traction when the county lost the bidding for Amazon’s second headquarters, a prize won by Arlington County, Virginia.
Although competition for “HQ2” has drawn dozens of bids, the loss of the online retail giant to a neighboring jurisdiction has reinforced, for some, Montgomery’s inability to grow its economy.
“We didn’t lose Amazon because we bid too low,” Elrich said. “We lost Amazon because Amazon was looking for academic support. They were looking for an academic presence that would advance their goals and provide them with the talent they needed to grow.
To lead the county’s pursuit of a medical informatics center in North Bethesda, Elrich lured Tom Lewis, a former chief of staff to House Speaker Michael Busch (D), from Johns Hopkins University. He said the first two dozen permanent staff will work in rented premises until the institute is built. Eventually, the space will include principal investigators, technical staff and students.
Lewis cited the development of COVID vaccines as an example of what can happen when artificial intelligence is used to process large amounts of data. Instead of taking years, as has historically been the case, coronavirus vaccines were developed over a period of months.
“They are going to put data analysts from [the two universities and the medical system] together in this one place and try to start identifying patterns that you would never detect with just human analysis,” he said.
Suntha said the system already contains “anonymised data” – meaning individuals’ identifiers have been removed – of 1.8 million patients in its systems, providing fertile ground for researchers.
“We’re going to be at the forefront of the evolution of science,” Elrich said. “We’re going to be able to provide support for institutions in this county, businesses in this county, and we’re going to be a magnet for more businesses.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included a photo caption that misidentified Pike and Rose’s development. The story has been updated.
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