Improved informatics infrastructure

USC wins $22.2 million grant for national informatics clearinghouse

Lloyd Dunlap
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LOS ANGELES—The NIH, which already was operating the Biomedical Informatics Research Network (BIRN) as part of its National Center for Research Resources, has awarded USC's BIRNCC—Biomedical Informatics Research Network Coordinating Center—a $22 million grant to develop a new, central clearinghouse for an ambitious ongoing national project to collect and integrate a wide range of biomedical data to make them more accessible to physicians and researchers.

BIRN itself is tasked with the collection of scientific data among collaborators and making this data available to the broader scientific community. As part of its role, BIRN also is charged with funding the infrastructure to facilitate sharing of data among biomedical researchers to accelerate hardware and software development used to conduct research and, ultimately, to expedite research results.

Leading the five-year program that aims to "revamp and update a critical element of an evolving NIH effort to improve access to the exploding volumes of biomedical research information" will be Dr. Carl Kesselman, a professor of systems engineering at the university's Viterbi School of Engineering Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and the USC Information Sciences Institute.

"USC brings 30 years experience building, deploying and operating informational infrastructures," Kesselman states, and is the lead partner on the project, which includes collaborations with the University of California, Los Angeles, UC Irvine, the University of Chicago, and Massachusetts General Hospital. "These are recognized leaders in information infrastructure and in scientific areas," he notes.

In fact, Kesselman believes USC's track record in participating in major successful collaborations was very important to its selection by NIH. Two high-visibility, sophisticated informatics partnerships he cites are the one with the University of Chicago for the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, CH, and the climate change data cited in Al Gore's Nobel Prize-winning activities.

As an example of the kinds of data that the USC unit will be involved with, Kesselman points to the on-going efforts to build an atlas of MRI images to better understand schizophrenia. Other areas of involvement will be genomics, proteomics, EKG and EEG. In fact, he says that all data modalities will be involved in a multidisciplinary, multi-institutional effort to understand the connections between data of all kinds.

By creating a nationwide computer network that facilitates collaborative biomedical research, BIRNCC will help ensure that important innovations reach society, Kesselman says.

"Without a sophisticated bioinformatics capability—which only top engineers can provide—we cannot hope to translate basic science into drugs and treatments that will improve the quality of life," he says. "BIRNCC can accelerate the rate of discoveries for many areas of biomedical research."

Lloyd Dunlap

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