Luckily for its prospective clients, genetic data banking firm First Genetic Trust doesn’t take security issues lightly.
The Chicago-based company, which plans to provide a high-security web-based platform to manage and analyze genetic and clinical data for pharmacogenomic research, found it had a unique problem when it came time to build its IT infrastructure. “We need security and we need very effective computation all in one application,” said CEO Arthur Holden, “and that’s really hard to do from an IT point of view. You can have very sophisticated computational systems that don’t have to worry about security or you can have very secure systems that don’t have to think too much about computation. We need to blend the two together.”
After “exhaustive” testing of “pretty much everybody,” according to Holden, the company found its technology partner in Hewlett-Packard, largely due to HP’s experience as a provider of web-based security for finance and banking, e-commerce, and the military.
David Valenta, global market development manager for HP Life Sciences, said he envisions similar security demands coming to the fore in future pharma and biotech IT decisions. “Large pharma companies are really concerned about their security … so they’ve been reluctant to use the Web and the Internet to transfer data back and forth,” he said.
Calling FGT a “trailblazer” in embracing the concept of web-based security for biological data, Valenta said that as more and more data is generated outside research organizations, pharma and biotech will “have to go outside their firewalls to get their information. They’ll have to embrace some security paradigms to protect this data when they go out and bring it in.”
While security was “one of the two or three major decision factors” in FGT’s search for a technology partner, Holden said that aspect was only one element of a “complex mix” of technology that HP put in place for the company (see sidebar). The infrastructure is built on HP Unix 9000 servers, notebook and desktop PCs and printers, and HP’s Virtualvault enterprise security software.
Putting the Tools to the Test
Andrea Califano, CTO at FGT, said that the company considered IBM, Compaq, and Sun before deciding to partner with HP. “Each one of them obviously had very dramatic strengths. In order to make the decision we put together over 450 line items that would be used in the comparison. Overall, with respect to all the things we wanted to do, HP came out on top.”
Estimating that security concerns weighed in at around 30 percent of FGT’s criteria, Califano said that while the other vendors offer security solutions of their own, the fact that HP’s Virtualvault was tailored to the web and had already won the endorsement of over 120 banks and other financial institutions really “played a significant part.”
“A lot of commercial security centers around authentication — positively identifying and maybe encrypting e-mail or web transactions or whatever,” said Bill Wear, co-developer and product manager of Virtualvault. “First Genetic Trust just didn’t find that to be adequate.”
Virtualvault takes concepts from high-level security systems developed for the federal government, but simplifies them for ease of use. Thus, the software provided the security FGT was seeking for its web interface, but “one that isn’t difficult to use,” Wear said.
FGT said its system provides access to an individual’s genomic data only when the patient has given specific consent. The company has built a number of quality control and assurance practices on top of Virtualvault and said it regularly subjects its platform to external audits and reviews.
Holden said that FGT is putting the finishing touches on its platform, which has been in development for over a year. The company expects to enroll its first patient in a project sponsored by GlaxoSmith-Kline in the UK in March.
HP’s Technology Package for First Genetic Trust
• Two HP 9000 A-class Unix servers (each offers 72 GB internal disk capacity, up to 2 CPUs with 8 GB maximum memory)
• Two HP 9000 L-class Unix servers (each offers 292 GB internal disk capacity, up to 4 CPUs with 16 GB maximum memory)
• HP Virtualvault enterprise security software
• “Numerous” other HP products, including laptops, PCs, software, and printers
• Consulting and implementation help