STEVENAGE, UK--BioInform recently met with two of the leading bioinformaticists at the Glaxo Wellcome Research and Development Medicines Research Center here to discuss the company's growing bioinformatics efforts and to get a user perspective on the directions in which the bioinformatics field is evolving. Dominic Clark, UK bioinformatics manager for Global R&D Information Systems, and Steve Taylor, a bioinformatics specialist in the Advanced Technology and Informatics group, shared their views on how bioinformatics relates to the pharmaceutical giant's overall research efforts, the future of object-oriented technologies for bioinformatics, and the challenges they face on a daily basis.
BioInform: How does bioinformatics fit into R&D at Glaxo Wellcome?
Clark: We're very tightly integrated into Glaxo Wellcome R&D through our five principal functions.
One is bioinformatics research, including external collaborations. We put a high premium on this. We develop and assess innovative methods that are novel but grounded in the context of applying them to practical challenges in research and genetics. Then there's application development. We develop a lot of our own applications. These are typically front ends to databases linked to analysis tools that are made available on the GW intranet. They are developed in close interaction with company scientists using rapid prototyping technologies.
Another large component of what we do is manage the bioinformatics infrastructure and delivery systems. This includes management of GW internal databases, internal copies of public domain databases and proprietary databases; software delivery, ensuring that scientists at all Glaxo Wellcome's research sites get access to the right bioinformatics tools. That involves a lot of interaction with other information systems functions within Glaxo Wellcome.
A fourth major activity is consultancy. We have very close contact with research and genome scientists and have a number of key staff who spend most of their time providing consultancy on specific projects, while at the same time increasing expertise within labs.
The fifth function is awareness. This is an enormous area, it's one of the key factors in ensuring exploitation of bioinformatics methods and data. It includes support, documentation, training, and education. The way we deliver awareness includes both formal and less-formal training sessions, subscription-based information services, and awareness activities arranged around provision of feedback from lead users in defining and demonstrating best practice in exploiting bioinformatics in their projects.
BioInform: The bioinformatics staff at Glaxo Wellcome are dispersed among a number of groups. How do you all work together?
Clark: There are a number of groups within GW Research and Global R&D Informatics Systems who work together as an international team, ensuring that bioinformatics is fully integrated into both research and information systems. We work along the model of international centers of excellence where different groups take the lead on different projects/activities.
BioInform: What are the top bioinformatics challenges you're facing at Glaxo Wellcome?
Taylor: International data and systems integration, for both software and data either generated in house, from the public domain, or from our collaborators. Integration is a continuing, dynamic process. New databases and search tools are being continually made available and need to be integrated and shared across all sites. On top of that we have our own computational research. As we develop or bring in-house new methods these need to be absorbed and integrated into our existing systems.
BioInform: How does Glaxo Wellcome determine which bioinformatics projects to deal with in-house and which ones to outsource?
Clark: It's a mixture of pragmatism, expedience, and eclecticism. Essentially, there are certain things that it makes more sense to do internally and certain things that it makes more sense to do through collaborations and outsourcing. We consider all those dimensions. We use some software made available in the public domain, but with the arrival of more systems that are being made available from commercial vendors, there are now more things to consider when making the decision about how best to resource a given activity or function.
BioInform: What do you look for in your partners?
Clark: It's the same factors that one must consider in any partnering or outsourcing activity. The fact that it's bioinformatics is layered on top of that. We look for technical expertise, the longer-term viability of the company, reliability, the degree to which we will be able to integrate their systems with our own without unduly affecting the way we manage our own systems internally. This then has to be evaluated in the context of the business benefits and the required resources--financial payments and internal overheads--across the lifecycle of the project.
BioInform: As a user, how do you feel about all the excitement over object-oriented technologies in bioinformatics? How will this create value for your operations?
Taylor: We're keen on the latest object technology, although it's quite in its infancy. Java is a constantly evolving language. The bioWidgets consortium is addressing reusable components, and we have an involvement through the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) biostandards project. At the same time we're pragmatic. We're much more keen to use reliable systems that are actually rock-solid for the biologists while at the same time keeping a very close eye on all the object technologies. Currently, we employ a mixture of relational and object technologies; it depends on the task. Value comes from the reusability of components and the ability to integrate components.
BioInform: Tell me more about your involvement with the industry consortium.
Clark: The EBI biostandards project is funded by EBI, the European Union, and the 18 industrial partners. What we in industry get in return for our investment is the opportunity to prioritize some of the activities of EBI that are funded through this initiative. These activities include training, support for specific software, such as SRS, and systems evaluation. The biostandards program represents a departure in some respects from the more traditional activities that the EBI provides in support of databases. It really is an attempt to make a proportion of the activities of EBI focused on the requirements of industry.
BioInform: It sounds like another example of how bioinformatics is moving from a purely academic discipline to one that's more focused on business needs.
Clark: That's certainly been a major change in the field. The importance and relevance of bioinformatics to industry, especially the pharmaceutical industry, has seen much more industrial investment in bioinformatics in recent years.
BioInform: How do you see bioinformatics evolving in the future?
Taylor: A major area will be the incorporation of developing technologies from computer science, for example, object technologies and agents. By the twenty-first century, computational experimentation should be just as natural to biologists as is laboratory experimentation. They should be able to interact with their data in an intuitive, highly visual manner and store the results of their experimentation in electronic notebooks that integrate laboratory data with information from company and public information repositories.
Software agents are also going to be very important, and I think we're going to see much more in terms of what is sometimes called "push" technology. We're already seeing a great takeup of this within Glaxo Wellcome with our internal alerting systems. I see more of these subscription-based information systems coming on-line.
BioInform: How about the trend toward software that can be used by people who are less expert in computer science. As computer scientists yourselves, do you see a benefit in that approach?
Taylor: Definitely. We have very close contact with biologists, so we have good knowledge of the metaphors that work in user interface design, and what we are going to be using are the standard metaphors that people are used to. We're involved in integrating those into user interface designs.
BioInform: Is Glaxo Wellcome's bioinformatics staff growing?
Clark: Yes, currently, we have about 50 staff worldwide. We're seeking to recruit a substantive additional number, who will be primarily concerned with new initiatives and collaborations. Our strategy, as always, is to recruit outstanding individuals; outstanding either in terms of their knowledge of how to apply bioinformatics to real problems in molecular biology or genetics; or in terms of proven, demonstrable skills in systems development and delivery. One motivation for people joining Glaxo Wellcome is the fact that they will be part of a large international team that will give them the opportunity to work with other experts in bioinformatics. We see this as a key aspect of bioinformatics at Glaxo Wellcome.