NIH-built toolset helps researchers share and compare data
- By Paul McCloskey
- Oct 20, 2015
On battlefields across the Middle East and football fields in the United States, traumatic brain injury (TBI) has hit near-epidemic proportions in the past several years. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say it leads to 52,000 deaths and 275,000 hospitalizations in the U.S. each year.
The spiraling caseload is pushing biomedical researchers to stretch their increasingly tight budgets and maximize their research to help prevent TBI and other serious health threats.
The National Institutes of Health has developed a set of software modules that researchers say are meeting both goals. The Biomedical Research Informatics Computing System (BRICS) gives scientists from different fields of research access to a common set of data management tools they can use to share results and discoveries more easily and frequently.
BRICS is a “set of tools that can be easily combined to help advance research by using informatics,” said Matthew McAuliffe, chief of NIH’s Biomedical Imaging Research Services Section.
In the past, researchers captured information in a variety of ways, which made it nearly impossible to compare datasets, he added. BRICS standardizes data definitions and records data consistently across all studies.
“The thing that’s really exciting now is that data can have a longer life, [which] means that research is going to be shared more quickly as opposed to what often happened — data would be in somebody’s lab and then be lost,” McAuliffe said.
Work on BRICS began when the Army’s Medical Research and Materiel Command approached NIH for help in developing a research database for TBI. “We said, ‘OK, let’s take a step back. Let’s build a modular system that we can use for TBI, but we’ll keep it modular, generic and easily instantiated,’” he said. “Essentially, that was the motivation for everything.”
BRICS forms the basis of the Defense Department-managed Federal Interagency Traumatic Brain Injury Research, but its influence has expanded beyond its original goal. BRICS supports the Parkinson’s Disease Biomarkers Program from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and is the basis of the National Eye Institute’s eyeGene, which seeks to advance the study of eye disease and its causes.
There are six components to the BRICS toolset, several of which McAuliffe considers “foundational,” including a data dictionary that helps researchers accurately locate data that is most relevant to their research.
“We consider that foundational because all the data that goes into the system is collected consistently,” he said. “Study A collects age data the same way Study F did. That way, you can combine the data easily and search it more easily.”
In addition, the Global Unique Identifier helps collect de-identified data consistently over time to help chart disease progression, and ProForms is an electronic data capture tool that builds electronic forms and maintains data consistency.
In the future, BRICS will run on the Drupal open-source content management framework, which is often used for knowledge management and collaborative applications. McAuliffe said the biggest advantage will be the ability to update content quickly.
“We won’t have to wait for the next deployment or ask the developers to add information to the site,” he said. It will also be easier to incorporate public-facing features to the site, including social or video tools and widgets.
As BRICS-based platforms grow, they will need to meet greater data storage requirements, especially in genomics research. McAuliffe sees that as one of the project’s bigger challenges and believes cloud might be the answer.
“With genomics, you are looking at an immense amount of data,” he said. “We want to see if we can maybe store that data out in the cloud and still make it discoverable.”
Meanwhile, BRICS developers are deciding whether to formalize an application programming interface for the data dictionary. “If we make it formal, then others can connect to it and convert their data in a way that’s more consistent with the installation of BRICS for that community,” he said.
Paul McCloskey is senior editor of GCN. A former editor-in-chief of both GCN and FCW, McCloskey was part of Federal Computer Week's founding editorial staff.