Ambitious new information grid will translate into
better patient outcomes
Cancer research has created an arsenal of diagnostic, prognostic and treatment strategies, putting
powerful tools in the hands of clinicians.
But another mighty weapon information resides in the laptops, notebooks and minds of cancer
investigators everywhere. For all of this data to be of real benefit, it has to be sharedinformationsharingz.
An ambitious new project aims to speed both information sharing and scientific progress. Known as caBIG
for cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid the project is lauded as the future of collaborative
"Sharing data, methods, computer programs and reagents is important in avoiding inefficient use
of resources and in enabling broad-front research progress," says David Rocke, professor of biostatistics
at UC Davis and one of the architects of caBIG.
A brainchild of the National Cancer Institute and the cancer research community, the $20 million caBIG
network will enable cancer and biomedical researchers to develop and share tools and data in an open environment.
Everything on the grid will be freely available to researchers and the public worldwide. The goal is to
accelerate progress in all aspects of cancer research.
The grid will leverage the combined strengths of the NCI, its 60 national cancer centers, including UC
Davis Cancer Center, and others in the cancer research field. In California, UC Davis is among five institutions
tapped by the NCI to get the grid off the ground. Overall nearly 50 organizations are collaborating on
the three-year project.
"UC Davis Cancer Center will help develop the cutting-edge communications capabilities that will
be at the forefront of cancer research nationally," says Cecil Lynch, chair of the UC Davis Medical
Informatics graduate group and an assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Anesthesiology and
Pain Management. Together, Lynch and Rocke are responsible for the UC Davis contribution to the caBIG
Sharing the harvest
In the field of cancer research, information about cancer from genetic and protein studies to
clinical trials is an abundant crop.
But cancer researchers may not always do a good enough job of sharing this harvest.
"It is currently difficult to combine and share data, information tools and knowledge in the cancer-centric
and greater bioinformatics community," says Timothy Patrick, associate director of the National Library
of Medicine's Biomedical and Health Informatics Research Training Program.
Indeed, NCI literature frequently laments that cancer researchers work in isolated "silos."
But if silos are for farms, not laboratories, why are they so widespread in science?
"Silos or islands of data, information, tools and knowledge are difficult to integrate
for both technical and possibly social reasons," says Patrick, who is also a professor of health
management and informatics at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Medicine.
One technical reason: lack of common standards. "There is no systematic method for general, broad
data sharing," notes Rocke, who also co-directs the UC Davis Institute for Data Analysis and Visualization.
Launched in July 2003, caBIG aims to change all that by promoting common standards, data sharing and
team-tested technologies brought together in an informatics infrastructure that NCI director Dr. Andrew
von Eschenbach calls "the World Wide Web of cancer research."
"Any time interoperability, sharing and combining of otherwise disparate resources is made possible,
it can certainly have an effect on the practice of research," Patrick says. "The caBIG project
appears to be addressing these needs."
Cancer research is a big field comprised of contributions from molecular biologists, geneticists, pathologists,
zoologists, biologists and a host of clinical subspecialists.
To be effective, these multidisciplinary researchers must integrate information from tumor pathology,
genome studies, proteomics, clinical trials and digital reams of computerized analyses.
Then the researchers must take the most promising ideas from bench to bedside, and back to the bench
again, for further refinement.
The collaborative thinkers behind caBIG say this painstaking work is no job for a closed system of disparate
databases and creaky communications.
"CaBIG will make cancer research and cancer care more efficient and effective," Rocke says.
"It will help avoid needless duplication of efforts, and will assist in keeping cancer research and
treatment more uniformly state-of-the-art."
Lynch goes so far as to predict that caBIG will gradually replace the traditional system of scientific
sharing through presentation at scientific meetings and publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
That time-honored system, he says, makes it difficult for independent researchers to discover related
projects until late in the process. In contrast, caBIG will allow data sharing in near real time.
Grids within grids
The caBIG grid is divided into smaller grids or "work spaces" made up of experts in such areas
as clinical trial management, pathology tools and the language of cancer researchers.
At UC Davis, the NCI saw research teams capable of helping to rewrite the protocols of cancer communications
by redefining and standardizing both language and practice a task central to the grid's eventual
success as an open and accessible information "collaboratory."
"My proposal involved use of an open-source (freely available) tool to bridge the gap between clinical
trials adverse events and hospital lab information systems," Lynch says. "This was precisely
the kind of project the NCI was looking for."
For UC Davis, involvement in caBIG is a boon to the university and a benefit to cancer researchers and
the cancer patients their work aims to heal.
"It is important for UC Davis Cancer Center to be included in caBIG both for our sake in
participating in this national effort, and for the sake of caBIG itself," Rocke says.
This unprecedented endeavor provides UC Davis with an opportunity to have input into the development
of caBIG from the very beginning, Lynch notes.
In addition, a highly visible project such as caBIG has one other powerful benefit: as a beacon that
attracts the best and the brightest.
"It should help translate into recruitment efforts for fellows and faculty in both cancer and informatics
research," Lynch predicts. "It will also improve the relationship between the cancer center
and informatics faculty by laying a foundation for further work together."
As its name implies, caBIG is an ambitious undertaking, without precedent in medical research.
"It is perhaps the largest, best-funded project of its kind," Rocke says. "Other such
projects I am aware of have been grassroots efforts, accomplished without specific funding. Having the
NCI behind caBIG makes it unique."
Lynch predicts the grid will have a big impact on the rate of discovery of new therapies, and will provide
improved safety for clinical trial patients by more rapid reporting and aggregation of adverse events
related to these therapies.
Size matters in research. Larger endeavors with the greatest funding often yield the most promising results.
If caBIG lives up to its potential, the giant grid will have a huge national impact.