BOSTON — Telecommunications giant BT has entered the life science informatics market with the launch of BT for Life Sciences R&D, a cloud-based service for use by scientists from pharmaceutical, biotechnology, devices, and diagnostics companies, as well as those in academia and government.
BT unveiled its new product at the Bio-IT World conference held here this week. As part of the launch, BT demonstrated a new capability developed as a proof of concept in collaboration with BioTeam that allows researchers to use Siri, the voice-activated personal assistant developed for Apple's iPhone, to verbally launch and run capabilities in Accelrys’ Pipeline Pilot on the BT cloud.
In a statement, Bas Burger, president of global commerce for BT Global Services, explained that BT for Life Sciences R&D could potentially help reduce research costs and shorten the amount of time needed to bring new drugs to market because it provides pharma companies with an infrastructure that supports third-party collaboration and at the same time provides the computer simulation and modeling tools they need for their research and development efforts.
He told BioInform that BT launched the platform in response to a perceived need from the pharma industry for a more efficient approach to doing research and development.
According to BT, its cloud solution lets users construct in silico workflows and data pipelines that can be used to identify new pharmaceutical targets and potential drug candidates. It also supports collaboration among research scientists, including tools to upload documents, share results, and communicate.
The platform is built on BT’s On Demand Compute service and includes a so-called “compliance wrap,” which, according to BT, ensures that the cloud environment meets quality and regulatory requirements. It also incorporates other aspects of the BT portfolio, including BT One, its communications platform, and BT Connect, a network that allows interoperability between private, hybrid, and public clouds.
The cloud infrastructure is also supported by the BT Assure portfolio of security services, which includes tools for data encryption, anonymization, and risk management that meet customers’ quality and regulatory requirements for the cloud environment, the company said. BT said it recently upgraded the Assure portfolio to better address security issues.
Furthermore, as a result of a partnership between BT and Accelrys, customers of the latter will be able to run Pipeline Pilot, Symyx Notebook by Accelrys, Isentris, and other Accelrys software via the BT cloud.
BT said Berg Pharma is using the resource for target identification and validation as well as for lead optimization of novel drug candidates.
The company will use BT’s cloud to run its internal platform as well as to support the use of cloud-based high-throughput molecular profiling techniques to select patients for clinical trials, BT said.
Berg will also make its internally developed Interrogative Biology platform available to other pharma companies via the cloud environment, BT said.
Niven Narain, Berg Pharma’s president and chief technology officer, said in a statement that his company’s approach to drug discovery and development “will integrate well” with BT’s cloud offering.
At the Bio-IT World conference, BT demonstrated the new offering along with the Siri-enabled voice command capability in order to showcase the capabilities of the cloud platform, but customers of the system will not have those capabilities just yet.
In a conversation with BioInform, Stan Gloss, CEO and co-founder of BioTeam, described the Siri-based offering as an “evolution of the user interface,” adding that it marks “the beginning of where we change the way we look at computers as being tools for research to computers becoming our partners.”
Normally, when a person speaks to Siri, the tool prepares a statistical model of analog speech that it sends to Apple's servers, where the spoken information and the intent of the speaker’s text is decoded via natural language processing techniques, William Van Etten, BioTeam co-founder and principal investigator, explained to BioInform.
BioTeam added a proxy server between the phone and Apple's servers that works as a “gateway” to the cloud platform, he explained.
As messages return from Apple’s servers, BioTeam’s proxy intercepts the data, “listens” for specific phrases that indicate that an individual wants to run a particular experiment on the cloud infrastructure, and then sends the instructions to the applications in BT's cloud via a Simple Object Access Protocol interface and returns the results when requested, he said.
Gloss told BioInform that his group has so far only programmed Siri to run the molecular dynamics tool NAMD on the BT cloud, but plans to program it to run other applications on BT as well as on other cloud platforms such as Amazon Web Services.
Gloss said BioTeam expects to offer Siri-enabled services to firms who might be interested in offering NLP-enabled products.
He could not provide pricing details since BioTeam hasn’t officially launched its Siri-based capability yet and will not be able to do so until Apple releases a public application programming interface for Siri.
Although Apple hasn’t shared its plans for a Siri API, BioTeam expects that the company could make a related announcement later this year. In the meantime, it will continue to monitor the interest levels of researchers in the space, Gloss said.
He also said that when the service is fully available it will be able to use BioTeam’s MiniLIMS system as one of its first applications.
Building a Cloud for Pharma
In a conversation with BioInform at the Bio-IT World conference, Yury Rozenman, BT’s head of marketing for global commerce, explained that the company's cloud solution was the fruit of several conversations with potential collaborators and customers about a platform that adequately addressed the research and development space.
BT didn’t want to spend large amounts of time working on solutions in a “vacuum” and wanted to bring a product to market quickly, Rozenman explained.
He added that integrating the environment with Accelrys Pipeline Pilot was a “good vehicle” for demonstrating BT’s ability to offer multiple applications on the cloud that provide “immediate value to customers” as well as to explore the best methods of providing its system to customers.
BT’s cloud also includes the Accelrys Discovery Studio modeling and simulation software, and the company is working to offer Contur — one of Accelrys' electronic laboratory notebooks — as well as its computational docking, molecular dynamics, and laboratory information management systems software.
Now that it has demonstrated its platform’s potential, the company is looking to run between six to eight pilots with current and potential customers, Rozenman said.
BT is open to working with both customers who have licensed Accelrys tools as well as those who have other programs and are looking for ways to move them to the cloud, he said. The pilots will also help BT flesh out its pricing structure and its cloud access approach as well as give the system a chance to stretch its legs ahead of a full commercial launch, he said.
“BT compute is available today if you want to get access to compute resources,” Rozenman said, but “if you are looking for access to applications, that is what we are running pilots for right now.”
Burger told BioInform that the company currently has a “complicated” but "flexible" pricing model in place.
BT plans to eventually offer a variety of applications from Accelrys and other vendors and to eventually create an app store, which it hopes to launch later this year, Rozenman said.
BT also hopes to incorporate some anonymized data made available by the UK’s National Health Service into its cloud platform, which can be used in disease modeling as well as to help researchers explore the effects of different treatments and of social factors like poverty, he said.
BT hopes to differentiate itself from competing cloud providers by offering both compute resources and applications while at the same time providing customers with “the right points of entry,” he said.
“There will be customers who will evaluate [BT for Life Sciences R&D] for commodity compute” while other customers may be interested in working with BT from “the point where we completely define the target and [identify the] lead compound and [then] take this into clinical environments and [then] bring in healthcare data,” he said.
“We don’t want to compete in an area where it’s just raw computation," he said. "We want to offer an environment where you can … enable the science rather than just the infrastructure alone.”
Additionally, the company expects its telecommunications expertise to stand it in good stead as it supports collaborations and information sharing between people, resources, and companies, Rozenman said.
Burger expressed similar sentiments.
“We are not a software provider,” he said. “The thing that we are going to do really well is connect this [platform] across the globe” and “connect the applications on top of it so you can use the apps seamlessly … with the data” while making sure that users are compliant with any required regulations.