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Q&A: Sam Shekar Discusses Northrop Grumman's Plans for Genomics Market


Sam-Shekar.jpgLast month, during a forum organized by US News & World Report, Amy Caro, vice president of health IT programs at Northrop Grumman, shared some details about her firm's plans to be more active in the genomics arena.

During her presentation, Caro said Northrop Grumman's role in the market would goes beyond IT integration to include "increasing levels of scientific expertise to analyze and visualize data, manage data, and ensure the secure exchange of information."

The defense contractor says it is currently cultivating a number of genomic and proteomic projects in partnership with universities and other companies. This isn't its first foray into the bioinformatics space, however. In a previous project, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases awarded $47 million worth of contracts to Northrop Grumman and its collaborators to develop ImmPort, an immunology database and web portal. Earlier this year, NIAID allocated an additional $30 million for the ImmPort project. Northrop Grumman is now partnering with a Stanford University-led team to develop the resource.

This week, BioInform sat down with Sam Shekar, chief medical officer for Northrop Grumman's information systems sector, to discuss further how the company hopes to be more involved in the space. What follows is an edited version of the interview.

This isn't the first time you've worked in the bioinformatics arena but from Amy Caro's comments, it sounds like you are looking to be a lot more involved. Can you talk a little bit about the role you see yourselves playing moving forward?

Northrop Grumman sees itself as a value-added facilitator between those who produce and those who would use genetic information. [That involves] being able to provide IT services and tools that will allow genetic information to be used most productively and efficiently in healthcare settings. Our capabilities and expertise, which include scientific expertise, data analytics, data integration, visualization, data management, and secure data transfer, can be very helpful in translating genetic information for users.

What efforts are you making in terms of putting infrastructure in place to provide the services you hope to offer?

We are developing a number of genomic and proteomic projects in partnership with universities and other companies that utilize our IT expertise to enable genetic information to be integrated, analyzed, and visualized for clinical purposes. We are establishing academic partnerships for pilot projects with some institutions around the country, developing white papers for potential use in the military and civilian health space, and exploring numerous business opportunities across the market. We look forward to discussing these more in depth in the coming year. We have also joined the Institute of Medicine’s Roundtable on Translating Genomic-Based Research for Health, which allows us to connect with key players in the academic world who are focused on personalized medicine.

About 1,500 Northrop Grumman people support the health business across multiple systems and in a number of areas, including public health, healthcare delivery support and, of course, our new focus in genetics. Over the past year we’ve hired staff with expertise in genetics and other technologies. We’ll continue to expand our staff with skilled geneticists and … solution architects to help us with the IT translation of genetic data.

Can you provide some examples of specific tools and capabilities that you are developing or have in house?

For example, there are many different sources of data. There's genetic, clinical, reimbursement, environmental, payment, and operational data. Some are structured and some are unstructured. The ability to do multivariate data integration and analytics will be critical to show and demonstrate the impact of genetics in healthcare. That is a capability we can bring to this field and utilize to help advance knowledge in healthcare.

In her talk, Amy Caro also mentioned security as one of the areas that Northrop was looking to contribute to. Can you shed some light around your plans on that front?

Like all health information, it is very important to ensure genetic information is secure and only seen by people who should see it. Cyber security and the security of personally identifiable information is very important as genetic information is increasingly used and transferred between systems. Northrop Grumman is making aggressive technology investments in identity management, cloud security, data security, and other relevant areas. We are very carefully looking at this area and believe we have the expertise and capabilities to provide the best solutions.

You mentioned earlier that Northrop was exploring business opportunities. Does that mean we could expect to see a product or a services offering specifically for the omics market sometime soon?

There are a number of areas that we are looking at. Certainly, we are thinking about the issue of all this data being produced and determining how that can be effectively utilized in healthcare settings. Again, the focus on multivariate data integration, analytics, and visualization … those are three major areas where we believe our capabilities can be very helpful and we are developing efforts in those areas.

Do you plan to target particular market segments?

There will be an immediate focus [on] clinical trials/research and other types of areas but eventually this will be something that has relevance in general healthcare delivery. The potential market is very broad.

You've got a pretty broad perspective as a company from having worked in areas such as healthcare IT and defense. What's your take on the computational challenges facing the omics arena?

There has been tremendous progress in our knowledge of genetics over the last two decades. Certainly there has been significant growth and knowledge about aspects of genetics, proteomics etc. The next major challenge is how does that information get utilized efficiently and effectively in healthcare settings? How do we take that information and have [it] serve as knowledge that then can be applied in daily healthcare? That translation from information to knowledge is one we feel very strongly needs to occur. We believe that translation will need IT integration systems … to help ensure information is harvested, applied, and utilized appropriately so it can advance healthcare and health outcomes.

This is an enlarging and emerging market and there are a lot of folks who are going to have solutions in this area. What we are going to be able to do is provide very strong systems integrator experience that when partnered with appropriate academic and other institutions can create a solution that will enable translation of genetic information into healthcare knowledge.

Any additional comments?

We believe that the routine use of personalized medicine in personal care will entail the robust integration, analysis, and secure transmittal of massive amounts of genetic data across multiple entities in the healthcare system. With our expertise in data integration, analytics, biosecurity, and visualizations, we believe Northrop Grumman will create value by providing the critical IT infrastructure and support to help grow and establish this field.