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Biomarkers NASA Software Aids Cancer Research


Cancer research and planetary science are fairly distant cousins in science’s family tree, but that doesn’t mean they have nothing in common. With help from researchers at CalTech’s Jet Propulsion Lab, one technology is being used to organize and share data from both quarters.

Just as biologists mine clinical data for evidence of biomarkers heralding the early onset of cancer, planetary scientists must manage diverse physical samples to substantiate theories about what’s happening in more remote corners of the universe. This analogy wasn’t lost on the National Cancer Institute, which recruited JPL’s Daniel Crichton to implement a software framework his group initially developed for NASA to share planetary data across geographically distributed research centers.

That effort, known as the Object Oriented Data Technology, plugs into existing systems and provides an architectural framework for integrating information across diverse networks. This key feature allows researchers from different sites in NCI’s Early Detection Research Network to share clinical data that would otherwise be buried in a babel of homegrown terms.

The common data elements endorsed by the EDRN are harnessed by Crichton’s OODT implementation, and provide a lingua franca for describing biospecimens. There are 90,000 specimens currently catalogued, which are parsed by more than 600 common data elements. So far, the informatics framework is live and connecting nine sites via the EDRN Resource Network Exchange, which is NCI’s virtual specimen bank. Crichton says that 15 sites will be sharing data by the year’s end. 

By providing a common language to describe biospecimens, the NCI hopes to foster collaborations across different sites to identify and classify putative biomarkers. To that end, JPL’s team is currently at work on a system to capture and manage data coming out of biomarker validation studies. Known as the EDRN Knowledge Environment, this will provide “a one-stop shop for looking at information” like clinical data, protocol information, specimen descriptions, and details on the biomarkers themselves, Crichton says. The JPL team expects to have informatics tools and infrastructure in place by the end of the summer.

— Jen Crebs


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