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Pocketing $47M in NIAID Contracts, Northrop Grumman Emerges as Bioinformatics Contender


Northrop Grumman isn’t exactly a household name in the bioinformatics sector, but that hasn’t stopped the defense contractor from snagging around $47 million worth of bioinformatics contracts from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease over the last two years.

“When people hear the name Northrop Grumman, they don’t think of bioinformatics all in the same breath,” said Kevin Biersack, Northrop Grumman’s bioinformatics program manager.

Nevertheless, a bioinformatics practice the company has been building within the health solutions division of its IT business sector is getting noticed. Last week, Northrop Grumman announced that it had won a $29.4 million contract to develop a database and web portal to integrate immunology data from NIAID’s Division of Allergy, Immunology, and Transplantation. This follows a $17 million award the company announced in July, which it will share with three partners to create one of six national Bioinformatics Resource Centers for NIAID [BioInform 07-19-04], and an initial $1.4 million that the company was awarded in late 2002 to develop a prototype of the immunology portal.

Biersack said that only around 36 full-time employees — including subcontractors — are participating in the company’s current bioinformatics projects. This is miniscule compared to Northrop Grumman’s total staff of around 125,000, of which around 21,000 are in the IT business unit and 1,000 are in the health solutions division. Likewise, bioinformatics revenues of $47 million over a span of eight years for two NIAID projects pale in comparison to Northrop Grumman’s total sales of $26.2 billion in 2003, of which $4.8 billion came from its IT business unit.

But Northrop Grumman joins a contingent of government contractors that have identified bioinformatics as a high growth area for their businesses. As BioInform has reported, a growing number of IT contractors — including SAIC, SRA International, the Research Triangle Institute, and Booz Allen Hamilton — have found success in delivering bioinformatics services to the NIH and other government agencies over the past few years.

For Northrop Grumman, the urge to dip its toe into the bioinformatics waters came in the fall of 2001, when NIAID issued a request for proposals for a Bioinformatics Integration Support Contract (BISC) — the first phase of the web portal project that was awarded last week. Biersack said that the company was one of 22 vendors that responded to the initial call. NIAID winnowed this down to two vendors for the first phase — Northrop Grumman and the Research Triangle Institute [BioInform 12-09-02] — and only one for the second phase.

Phase 1 called for Northrop Grumman and RTI to develop prototypes of the integration portals they planned to deploy at NIAID. Under Phase 2, Northrop Grumman will deploy the system, which should take about a year, Biersack said, and then follow that up with maintenance, updates, and support for another five years.

Portal Architecture

Northrop Grumman’s design for the so-called Immunology and Data Analysis Portal (or ImmPort) will include four major components: a central data archive, an integrated data warehouse, an electronic workspace with integrated analysis tools, and technical training and support.

The project team will be housed at Northrop Grumman’s facility in Rockville, Md. The company will also collaborate on the project with the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, integration service providers Kevric and Unicorn Solutions, and Maryland-based bioinformatics software firm Biomind. Biersack said that Northrop Grumman considers itself the “systems integrator” for the project, and will rely on these subcontractors to provide domain expertise in biology, immunology, and bioinformatics.

Biersack said that this model is the reverse of RTI’s approach. “They’re known more for their scientific and research expertise, and then they subcontracted out their IT,” he said. But he stressed the importance of having partners with biological expertise on the project: “You have to make sure that you lead with the biology and you lead with the science, and then you tailor what you’re doing from an IT perspective. If you do the reverse, you’re going to set yourself up for failure.”

According to the NIAID RFP for the project, ImmPort “will serve the scientific data-handling requirements of as many as 150 clinical and basic research scientists distributed across as many as 115 individual laboratories located in the continental United States.” NIAID stipulated that the system should be designed to integrate sequence data, SNP data, protein structures, microarray data, pathway data, information from flow cytometry analysis, textual documents including research notes and clinical records, and other types of information.

Biersack said that Northrop Grumman opted for a centralized data warehouse approach to this challenge after considering other options, including a federated — or distributed — model that RTI pursued, which was based on IBM’s DiscoveryLink technology. However, he added, the data warehouse will “have the ability to link to other data resources that are already federated.”

Biersack said that Northrop Grumman is still weighing its options for the central database that will serve as the core for the system. He said that there is a possibility that ImmPort will be built on Oracle’s new 10g database, but added that open source options like MySQL and Postgres are also on the table because — among other reasons — “open source is a big sell with NIH.”

Decisions on particular technologies will be made after the project team writes a series of whitepapers outlining its options, which are then subject to a thorough business case analysis, Biersack said.

Some decisions have already been made, however. For example, Biersack said that the system will run on a Linux cluster.

Both Sides of the NIAID Fence

The ImmPort award is Northrop Grumman’s second major contract from NIAID this year. Emboldened by its initial success with the first phase of the BIRC project, Biersack said that when NIAID issued requests for proposals for the biodefense BRCs last June, the company applied along with 26 other organizations thinking it could “leverage similar technology” that was being developed for the portal.

It turned out to be a safe bet. Northrop Grumman was awarded one of six NIAID BRC grants this summer, which it will use to develop a web-based database called BioHealthBase that will integrate data for six pathogens.

The two projects give Northrop Grumman’s fledgling bioinformatics team the opportunity to work across the full spectrum of NIAID’s activities, Biersack said — from hosts to pathogens. BioHealthbase is managed by the agency’s Division of Microbiology and Infectious Disease, while ImmPort supports the Division of Allergy, Immunology, and Transplantation, which will require Northrop Grumman to address both immunology and microbiology, Biersack said.

“We can leverage similar IT technology and potentially create some synergy by having on one side of the fence this initiative that is more host-oriented toward immunology, and on the other side of the fence, this microbiology emphasis,” he said.

— BT

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