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Shanghai Surprise: InforSense, IBM Help Launch China s Biggest Bioinformatics Center

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Soon, much drug discovery knowledge could be stamped “made in China” — that is, if the new Shanghai Center for Bioinformatics Technology gets off the ground. The center, funded with 80 million Chinese Yuan ($12 million US), aims to export the drug discovery informatics of Chinese scientists to US, European, and Japanese biopharma.

The center is slated to open in November and is located in Shanghai’s life sciences and high-tech sweet-spot, the ten-year old Zhangjiang High-Tech Park.

This 25 square-kilometer park, in addition to housing the country’s semiconductor operations, is also the Chinese home to 34 non-Chinese pharmaceutical companies, including Boehringer Ingelheim, Glaxo-SmithKline, Roche, and Sankyo, as well as dozens of biotech companies and genomics companies such as Amersham Biosciences.

The bioinformatics center only has a handful of employees, but plans to grow to 30 in the near future.

The long-term goal is “the India model,” said Yike Guo, CEO of London-based software company InforSense, which is collaborating with the center. “They can gear up the bioinformatics service and [then] will do collaborations with foreign companies in the West, [especially] the pharmaceutical companies.”

Guo just returned from a visit to the center in Shanghai, where he signed a deal in which InforSense will provide its Kensington Discovery Edition informatics platform to the center in return for some intellectual property rights.

Additionally, IBM has provided the center with servers, middleware, and the DiscoveryLink data integration software.

Several people from this new center will be going to the UK to train on the InforSense platform, Guo said.

China Plays Catch-Up

The three-way partnership was formed partly out of the center’s desire to focus on integrating diverse types of data rather than working within separate data silos, according to Guo.

“They understand they are a couple of years behind the leading research,” Guo said. “So their basic approach is, if you come later, you must do something that is cutting-edge.”

InforSense’s informatics system supports enterprise-wide data mining, visualization, and analysis. “We are not a single-algorithm company,” Guo said. “What we do is [have] multiple data types and a single algorithm. Rather than separate algorithms to cluster protein chips, gene expression [data], and metabolites, the company’s approach is that it’s all data, and as such, can all be mined with one type of algorithm.

The company sees this integrated approach as key to surviving in today’s informatics market — and as key to China’s successful entry into it.

While Guo admits that the bioinformatics sector has experienced some rough waters lately, he attributed this to “the older way of doing informatics” in which there is isolated thinking about each data type, from high-throughput screening, to expression.

“There is no such thing as high throughput screening informatics. Informatics is informatics,” he noted.

InforSense has about 25 customers in biotech, pharma, and academia. While the company is pretty busy with this group, Guo decided to help the Shanghai center after meeting a delegation led by the center’s director, Yi Xue Li, at a meeting on China and UK collaboration at the UK’s e-Science Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, this June.

InforSense is “deeply involved” in this initiative and Guo also saw an opportunity to aid in the germination of Chinese bioinformatics research.

With this partnership, “we have the possibility of doing something very great, and very useful,” he said.

— MMJ

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