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Conferencing on Data

Bioinformaticians are facing a number of challenges as they try to mine, investigate, and find order and useful meaning in massive piles of research and clinical data. Forbes' Andy Oram offers a snapshot of the kinds of research questions and problems these investigators are pursuing, and the types of tools they are using to do it, in a report from the scene of the recent Bio-IT World Conference and Expo.

The 2,700 conference attendees and presenters are tackling issues related to the sheer scale and disorderliness of clinical research data, trying to find ways to search through troves of genetic information for links to diseases and drug responses, and to create ways to untangle and make sense of physicians' medical records, he writes

For instance, AstraZeneca's Steven Labkoff gave a talk about how important good clinical data is to drug developers. For a drug to gain insurance coverage, he says, pharma firms have to show both safety and effectiveness, naturally, but also have to prove that their drugs are better than those offered by competitors. Electronic medical records can be a big help in this process, he says.

Labkoff points out that AstraZeneca has helped Pfizer to identify 42 uses for EMRs in pharma development, including finding patients for drug trials, recruiting patients, and targeting patients using biomarkers collected through EMRs, Oram writes.

"The stakes resting on data collection illustrate the financial issues driving data in the life sciences. Big money was being spent in the exhibition hall," he adds.

Although the companies showing on the conference floor were offering their software either as services or as licensed products, Oram says, there was quite a bit of talk about free software during the talks.

For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs is running patient notes through the Unstructured Information Management Applications project of the Apache Foundation, a natural language processing engine donated by IBM. The VA uses the service to determine which patients were smokers, which had advanced cancer, and which had genomic information in their records, among other useful bits of info.

Stephen Friend's keynote talk had a significant focus on the value of collaboration and free software, as knowledge should be viewed as a currency that researchers can trade and share to benefit everyone, Oram says.

Friend also highlighted how bioinformaticians and geneticists are increasingly attacking more complex phenomena, investigating wellness in addition to disease, working to understand the underlying causes of disease, and trying to unravel the many ways that proteins function in different contexts and pathways.