Georgetown Network Links Cancer Studies

By Ellen McCarthy
Thursday, May 19, 2005

Last month, the techies at Georgetown University embarked on a rather ambitious mission: curing cancer.

Well, not curing it, perhaps, but helping those who are on the trail of a cure work more closely together by creating a super-network linking 50 cancer institutes spread throughout the country.

Georgetown's seven-person A dvanced Research Computing center was hired by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to help build the Biomedical Informatics Grid, or caBIG, a project researchers hope will advance cancer treatment over the next 10 years and reduce cancer-related deaths.

Georgetown's involvement came through ARC's expertise in grid computing -- a capability the liberal arts university is hoping will become one of its marquee technology specializations. Grid computing is a relatively new form of networking that links computer systems in different geographic areas to increase their power and allow more users to have access to information.

ARC director Steve Moore and other technologists say grid computing has the potential to transform the operations of industries such as manufacturing and the military by eliminating barriers to collaboration among people stationed in different offices. To promote the technology, ARC also created a Web portal to track grid-related projects around the world.

ARC was founded in 2000 to help Georgetown's scientists with research that requires extensive computation, such as the analysis of molecular behavior. Through one of Georgetown's biomedical scientists, Cathy H. Wu , ARC's directors were introduced to NCI's leaders, who awarded Georgetown an $810,000 contract to help with the caBIG initiative.

ARC's work entails converting systems at the 50 cancer centers to a common platform, so the gene mutations being studied in Texas can be shared with researchers in Massachusetts, for instance. Until now, the collaboration between the cancer centers was limited, said Peter Covitz , director of core infrastructure at the NCI's Center for Bioinformatics , partly because it could take months for scientists to swap data.

Moore said the caBIG contract has given credence to ARC's grid work and has given his team new motivation.

"We're working on what is arguably the most important bioinformatics project the federal government has ever undertaken," he said.

If you ask Col. Fred Coppola , a U.S. Army officer stationed at Fort Belvoir, he'll acknowledge that things didn't go perfectly on the battlefields of Iraq, technically speaking.

"We really outran our information and technology," Coppola said. "All of a sudden, these systems our commanders had been relying on no longer worked, and that was just bad."

As bad as it was for Coppola's troops, his words rang with opportunity for the crowd of technology contractors listening to the colonel's assessment Tuesday morning at the Washington Convention Center.

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