REDMOND, Wash., Oct. 19, 2006 – Peter Kuhn has no trouble pinpointing his ultimate goal as a bioscience researcher. “I will do whatever it takes to make cancer a managed disease,” says Kuhn, professor of cell biology at The Scripps Research Institute.
What’s often far more elusive for Kuhn and others in the bioscience field is how to more effectively translate massive volumes of complex research data into usable information that helps fellow scientists, doctors and drug developers move closer to a cure for diseases like cancer.
These challenges have inspired Microsoft, The Scripps Research Institute and more than a dozen other companies to form the BioIT Alliance, a cross-industry group working to further integrate science and technology as a means of advancing translational and personalized medicine. Since announcing the alliance last April, Microsoft and various members have initiated several proof-of-concept projects aimed at streamlining data management and exchange as a first step toward more ambitious healthcare breakthroughs.
“The bioscience field in general, and personalized medicine in particular, has some very demanding technology requirements,” says Don Rule, program manager in the Strategic and Emerging Business group at Microsoft. “There’s a huge volume of data in many organizations that is doubling every 12 months, and uncovering the relationships between these data sources can require extremely high-performance computing systems. Also, since these researchers and clinicians typically aren’t IT experts, they need familiar, easy-to-use tools for pulling insights from the data.
“These are areas where we believe Microsoft can add significant value, both with our existing products as well as by providing a technology platform that enables other companies to build better tools,” he says.
The BioIT Alliance’s first coordinated project is the Collaborative Molecular Environment, an application that uses the latest beta versions of the 2007 Microsoft Office system, Microsoft Windows Presentation Foundation and Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 to support data capture, visualization, annotation and archival. Created by alliance member Interknowlogy LLC and Microsoft, the Collaborative Molecular Environment is now being tested by Scripps and other companies involved in the alliance.
“Bringing research results to the bedside and patients’ responses back to the research bench, which is the crux of translational medicine, requires people from many different disciplines to collaborate,” Kuhn explains. “That can be enormously difficult when they’re each working with data in different formats, managing it in disconnected IT systems and struggling to correlate it with other sets of data in order to draw conclusions.”
Simplifying Scientific Collaboration
The Collaborative Molecular Environment project aims to simplify collaboration by using these Microsoft technologies to help teams of people quickly categorize, organize and add context to data collected in the course of their research. Also, because the data that researchers generate within Microsoft Office and SharePoint is rendered in eXtensible Markup Language (XML), they can freely share this information across IT systems and organizational boundaries.
“By implementing the Collaborative Molecular Environment on Microsoft Office and Windows, we benefit from the massive investments that Microsoft has already made in these products, but also can customize them for our unique needs,” Kuhn says. “We’re now starting to connect all these different pieces of data and keep them in a connected world through this project, which should enable us to make huge strides in research effectiveness.”
Another key focus area for the BioIT Alliance deals with improving the integration of molecular research data with clinical observations. Applied Biosystems, a leading provider of scientific instrument systems and data analysis software tools, is among the alliance members leading this charge by making instrument-generated data easier to share. The company is cooperating with Microsoft and other software developers to ensure their data products and content are accessible, so that independent software vendors can develop off-the-shelf solutions for biomedical research and life science companies. As part of a second proof-of-concept called the Biomarkers Project, alliance members aim to help simplify the process for identifying and validating genomic biomarkers – the characteristics that indicate the presence of a disease or the likely efficacy of a drug.
“As leaders in the industry, we feel a responsibility to move toward open and cooperative sharing of data,” says John Oakley, chief architect at Applied Biosystems. “Through the BioIT Alliance, we are committed to ensuring our data is accessible to ISVs so they can begin to build solutions that help customers manage and access that data in a more effective way.”
Rule believes that the feedback from researchers and fellow BioIT Alliance members already has proved invaluable for Microsoft as it prepares the 2007 Office release for general availability over the coming months. “This is a great opportunity to learn how scientists and physicians are using our new products in working with unruly data that’s related to very complex problems,” he says. “It’s even more exciting because their work has the potential to dramatically affect all of our lives.”
Better Teamwork in Fight Against Cancer
The Scripps Research Institute’s initial test runs with the Collaborative Molecular Environment are stoking Kuhn’s confidence that more effective teamwork by the medical, pharmaceutical and bioscience communities will eventually end cancer’s reign as the leading cause of death.
“We are using the BioIT Alliance to push our research as aggressively as we can,” he says. “If we can get to a point where the physicians who treat patients every day are communicating their needs directly to the research labs, and researchers are using real clinical challenges to guide their work, then we will be on a winning path.”