New NIH cancer network to speed research

The National Institutes of Health's National Cancer Institute has begun developing a biomedical electronic information network on which scientists can share research data to accelerate the discoveries in cancer care.

NIH launched the initiative last July as a pilot study. The cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid, or caBIG, now links 50 cancer centers and should be established over the next year, Ken Buetow, director of the National Cancer Institute's Center for Bioinformatics, said yesterday.

The system, which is an open-source, voluntary information network, will let cancer and biomedical researchers share applications, standards, data and collaborate on projects. It can be found at http://caBIG.nci.nih.gov.

Recent advances in cancer research methods and technologies have resulted in an explosion of information and knowledge about cancers and their treatment, Buetow said. The ability to characterize and understand cancer is growing exponentially, based on information from genetic and protein studies, clinical trials and other research endeavors.

But cancer research is currently an 'informatics tower of Babel,' Buetow said. Each cancer research community speaks its own vocabulary, creates its own databases and publishes in specialty journals. Each analytical tool in each institute is unique, making it difficult to share research.

'Integration is critical to achieve the promise of molecular medicine,' Buetow said. The network will allow cancer groups to discover what others are working on, such as clinical trials management systems and encourage collaboration. Also, caBIG will let researchers recycle data from other researchers' clinical trials.

Once caBIG is completely in place, a researcher will be able to pull together, for example, a cancer molecular project in 20 minutes over the Internet that would have taken weeks or months to track down and assemble from many sources, Buetow said.

The first steps will be to build a shared, enterprise vocabulary of 18,000 concepts, develop structured data reporting elements that are compliant with international standards organizations and capture computer models of biomedical objects, such as genes or therapeutic data models.
Examples of content that would be available are cancer genomics, molecular pathology, a cancer image database, animal models and clinical trials evaluations, he said.

NIH expects that caBIG will help redefine how cancer research is conducted, and eventually, how cancer care is provided. The network has a budget of $20 million for the first year of the pilot and NIH anticipates similar funding levels for the second and third years.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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