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NCI’s Ken Buetow Discusses caBIG’s Plan to Build Network of Licensed Service Providers

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Ken Buetow
Director
National Cancer Insitute's Center for Bioinformatics
Four years after it was launched as a pilot project, the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid project is looking to ensure that researchers who adopt caBIG technologies have access to adequate technical support.
 
In line with this goal, caBIG last month released a request for proposals for a new initiative, called the Support Service Providers Program, which will grant qualifying commercial organizations the right to market themselves as licensed caBIG service providers.  
 
The deadline for companies or groups to submit proposals under the program is May 27.
 
The solicitation requests applications in four service categories:
1)     Help-desk support, including support for end users as well as IT administrators for applications in caBIG’s Life Sciences Distribution, Clinical Trials Compatibility Framework, and the Data Sharing and Security Framework;
2)     the adaptation and enhancement, such as customization, of caBIG-compatible software applications;
3)     deployment support in laboratory or clinical environments for caBIG software applications, including the provisioning of hardware, operating systems, and software such as application servers;
4)     documentation and training materials and services for caBIG software applications and software-development methodologies, as well as instructional material relative to semantic and syntactic interoperability within caBIG’s compatibility guidelines.
 
According to the request for applications, a functioning enterprise service network will help achieve “interoperability as an integral part of broader biomedical research and clinical care.”
 
The point of the solicitation “is to provide a mechanism to engage people who are going to provide commercial-grade services to the caBIG community,” said R. Mark Adams, program manager for caBIG and senior associate at Booz Allen Hamilton. He is head of the consulting firm’s biomedical informatics group, which has been a caBIG contractor since the program was launched. As caBIG has grown, he said, the strategy has been to increasingly seek out participation of the commercial community.
 
Booz Allen sees its role as providing informatics strategy as “a means to meet operational goals,” Adams said. “The idea from the start was to say, “Is there a way to work together [so] that the software that is developed will be interoperable and can exchange data from the beginning rather than every time [we] need to write stuff to provide the context for interface and interoperability?’” said Adams.
 
Vendors selling tools or services will typically suggest the use of their product as a solution to a given problem, said Adams. So his aim generally is to encounter clients at an early stage of their project so “they don’t find themselves in the position … ‘Oh my gosh, we bought all this stuff and now it doesn’t talk together.’ The caBIG program is in essence an approach in that direction,” he said.
 
CaBIG is the type of project that seeks to work with developers of commercial systems, service providers, with academic and open source developers, the scientists who are ultimately going to be users. The support service provider announcement fits into that overarching strategy, Adams explained.  
 
To help applicants putting the final touches on their submissions, others who might still be pulling their application together, and others who are just getting acquainted with this solicitation, BioInform checked in with Kenneth Buetow, who directs the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Biomedical Informatics and Information Technology and is the NCI’s project leader for caBIG.
 

 
Have there been previous solicitations for support service providers?
 
This is the first, flagship effort in this space.
 
Will there be a limited number of licenses issued by NCI?
 
We’re committed to award as many licenses as we have people who can meet the appropriate quality standards and can meet the definition of what we put in the solicitation.
 
Service providers can help the cancer research community avoid spending time managing and troubleshooting their research infrastructure, and service providers will be able to call themselves ‘licensed caBIG support service provider.’ Those are two strong motivators, but what else is in it for them?
 
We certainly intend to communicate the list of service providers at all of our forums and to make available, whenever we convene, to share the information related to the service providers. We hope to see to it that people who have needs are connected to the people who have capabilities.
 
What’s emerging is that there is getting to be a significant caBIG community, that there is an installed base, real users of these applications.
 
One of the things I think we have struggled with in biomedicine during the boom and bust cycles of IT and the excitement and the challenges associated with the bioinformatics revolution is that we have struggled to have a marketplace be put together. What I think is starting to emerge out of the caBIG community now is that there is a real collection of people, there are economies of scale so that one can look at work that would translate across multiple organizations, multiple institutions.
 
Service providers might be interested in a large exposure for their tools. How large is the scope of caBIG?
 
CaBIG is gaining traction … We have activities and partnerships with individuals in the UK; we are going global. CaBIG infrastructure is going to be used to support multinational trials, our colleagues at Duke [University] are setting up a clinical trial in the People’s Republic of China and are co-recruiting across national borders. We have conversations in China for deploying the life sciences technology stack to support their life science research activities. We have ongoing conversations with groups in India, as well as preliminary discussions with groups in Latin America.
 
Part of the reason the global reach is important is to rally together all of the stakeholders that are part of biomedical activities. Most of the pharmaceutical companies are global in scope and for them to take any effort in the United States seriously it needs to have this global outreach. Moreover, cancer research is global as well. The notion that we can bring into the research arena the findings that are part of the global endeavor is a high tide that raises all the ships. 
 
More locally and in the context of healthcare delivery, what is interesting and strategic for us is that we are now directly engaged with community cancer centers in terms of trying to have caBIG technology be deployed not only in our crown jewel tertiary NCI-designated centers but also in the context of this much broader community of healthcare deliverers .…
 
CaBIG is not just about cancer anymore. The technology stack is being explored in other disease domains. The Cardiovascular Research Network [a five-year, $7.5 million project funded by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute and led by Kaiser Permanente's research division] is a place that is looking at how they can recycle pieces of the caBIG technology stack, [and there is] exploration in the other sectors in the health care arena.
 
For example, pieces of the caBIG technology stack are being recycled as part of the Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology’s efforts to create a national health information network. More specifically, caBIG components are a part of the Federal Health Architecture, so when you are doing health transactions, caBIG components will be part of that infrastructure.
 
CaBIG encompasses workspaces, which are focus areas where policies as well as applications are created. Some of those workspaces focus on specific areas such as in vivo imaging or tissue banks and pathology tools; other workspaces cut across domains to deal with architecture or data sharing. Do service providers need to select one workspace?
 
Not necessarily. There are many different categories for provisions of service; there are lots of strategies people might apply. So we don’t want to be prescriptive as to how people might want to approach this.
 
If there is general broad expertise across a variety of the components of caBIG, we’d be ecstatic to get people to apply under that model; people who have deeper expertise in one model, we are happy to see those as well.
 
CaBIG is searching for support service providers in four categories: help desk support, adaptation and enhancement of caBIG-compatible software applications, deployment support for caBIG software applications, and documentation and training materials and services. Is one more relevant than another?
 
We’d speculate that there would probably be interest in all of these components in our communities as it is organized. We have certainly had feedback as we’ve interacted with the 46 different NCI-designated centers that are in the process of deploying caBIG, as [well as] the 16 community cancer centers. What we are finding is that different organizations want a variety of different things from the menu. This is one of the reasons we put out this broad-reaching activity. Some groups are looking to have a commercial partner help them to deploy the caBIG software within their institution.
 
One of the features of open-source software is that it can be customized to particular business flows. They can add, remove, [or] alter characteristics of the applications as they want. We have feedback from groups [saying], ‘Wow, we really like this base product; we would really like to add this local functionality.’
 
We certainly provide documentation and training materials but [some] say at their local institution, ‘We would really like to beef that up, to have this tuned to our particular community and specific activity.’ Part of the excitement of this new activity is that we really don’t know where the major thrust will be and that is one of the reasons we want to open it up to the marketplace.
 
According to the NCI, previous participation in caBIG is not mandatory for service-provider applicants, but they do need to have experience with caBIG’s technology stack. Could you explain that?
 
We want to be sure that there is a certain level of quality with the deployment of services. We want the CaBIG brand to be used by individuals who can produce both quality and value for their customers. So we think it is important for groups to be in a position to speak knowledgeably about caBIG infrastructure applications.
 
NCI recently released an updated version of the caBIG compatibility guidelines. How do these guidelines pertain to service providers?
 
Core to caBIG is the notion of connection and interoperability. I would always encourage people to be familiar with [that, so] when we talk about connecting through caBIG, [they know] what the definition is … We think that one of the strengths of caBIG is the recognition that compatibility is a process, and that there are different ways organizations may choose to approach compatibility.
 
[Although it is a different caBIG solicitation], we want and we will continue to adhere to the caBIG standards … so the compatibility guidelines are all about how groups designate and are allowed to use the words ‘caBIG compatibility.’ The compatibility guidelines define different levels that groups or organizations producing tools, infrastructure and other things can describe [about] how they can interoperate in the caBIG space.

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