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Target Practice

Software and database vendors aim to supply researchers with tools to extract quality from quantity

by Rick Mullin
October 1, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 40

Zooming In
Credit: Aperio
Clinical imaging systems, such as Aperio's ScanScope, are informing discovery research.
Credit: Aperio
Clinical imaging systems, such as Aperio's ScanScope, are informing discovery research.

DRUG INDUSTRY researchers have changed their priorities, says R. William Taylor, vice president of marketing for Accelrys, a provider of molecular modeling and informatics software. "Now they want it better, faster, and cheaper," he says. "In that order."

The era of high-speed, high-volume research has given way to a push for high-quality drug candidates at the front end, a change that equates to a quest for better data management, Taylor says. "A few years ago, the industry thought it could solve all its problems through high-throughput screening. But all that did was move the bottleneck from screening to medicinal chemistry," he says. "They learned that 'faster' isn't best. Now 'better' is the number one priority-getting better hits on targets faster. Then comes 'cheaper.' "

This view was borne out by Ingrid E. Akerblom, executive director of research informatics services at Merck & Co., in a speech at the 12th annual Drug Discovery & Development of Innovative Therapeutics conference in Boston earlier this year. "We used to say we need more shots on goal," she said, referring to the number of drug candidates going into development. "We can't afford more shots on goal. We need better shots on goal."

According to Akerblom, moving from "more" to "better" is a matter of improved information flow between discovery research and clinical development, a message that Accelrys and other providers of software and databases have heeded in recent rounds of product development.

At Accelrys, R&D has trended in the past three years toward what Taylor calls "scientific business intelligence," a variation on generic business intelligence software that takes advantage of Accelrys' legacy in molecular modeling and simulation.

"Business intelligence gives users the ability to integrate and aggregate corporate data and then slice and dice it to provide reports for executives and business analysts to understand the business," he says. "Our software targets a much more operational user—the research scientist."

It also deals with much more disparate data. Accelrys' Pipeline Pilot software platform allows researchers to configure computing environments that pull data from internal and external sources and display it in everything from Web pages to three-dimensional modeling graphics.

Frank K. Brown, chief science officer (CSO) at Accelrys, says Pipeline Pilot lets researchers "conduct their own queries and aggregate data without an IT person at their hip." The system operates on a service-oriented architecture—a network of software applications—and can be reconfigured by the user when experiments or work processes require a change.

And work processes change rapidly in pharmaceutical laboratories, where cascading data and emerging research techniques make high-quality drug candidates hard to find. The result is a lot of pressure on databases.

At Oracle, the leading provider of database tools to the drug industry, a new-generation system called Database 11g was introduced this year with improved imaging features over previous Oracle systems, according to Vijay Pillai, the firm's director of life sciences and translational medicine.

"The Database 11g system addresses searchability concerns," he says, noting that the data-intensive nature of images makes them difficult for researchers to store and access. A medical image is usually a data-rich jpeg file. The new Oracle database incorporates a health care industry imaging standard called DICOM that affords easier manipulation of all the data associated with an image and allows researchers to search images over any application on a network that also uses the standard. "With Database 11g, the image becomes portable," Pillai says.

Tech Support
Infrastructure projects get a big slice of IT spending in life sciences.
Infrastructure projects get a big slice of IT spending in life sciences.

WHILE THE NEW imaging capabilities were developed at the request of life sciences and health care industry users, Oracle databases do not cater to particular markets, according to Pillai. Database 11g has inherent searching capabilities, he says, but is generally used in the pharmaceutical industry in conjunction with software supplied by vendors specializing in drug research.

One such company, InforSense, develops workflow software in partnership with Oracle. Its workflow system can also support its own network of research products, including a new product, ClinicalSense, that allows researchers to browse phenotypic data sets and other complex data from clinical trials. "It ties in with other applications, like GenSense, our genetics module," says Jonathan Sheldon, CSO at InforSense.

SHELDON SAYS the company's software, which was originally designed for drug research but is now used in other industries, acts as a layer over data sources, integrating information on the basis of user queries. It affords a higher degree of data analysis than standard translational databases, he claims.

But not all research tools are tied into big databases. The Internet is essentially an enormous database that can be accessed via Oracle's Database 11g with a secure browser. And some drug research software runs on smaller networked computer systems. For example, Aperio, an imaging software provider, has introduced a scanning and imaging system called ScanScope that runs on file servers. Images are scanned and stored locally and are accessible by any user on a network employing the https secure data- transfer protocol widely used in financial services, according to Steve Potts, biopharma marketing director for Aperio.

Potts explains that ScanScope is used in clinical research to scan biological slides and search the resulting images electronically. It employs a technique similar to Google Earth, the Internet map system that accesses satellite photographs and allows users to zoom in close to objects on the ground.

Oracle's Pillai predicts that imaging systems currently employed in clinical drug development will be the next big thing in drug discovery. "One area of focus for us is the convergence of clinical data with research data and vice versa," he says. "We've started working with clinical research institutions because that is where you will probably see more cutting-edge research."

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