Advances in research methods and technologies, especially information from genetic and protein studies and clinical trials, have produced an explosion of knowledge about cancers and their treatment. Yet the ability to capitalize on the advances has been limited because there has been no standard set of data tools or software by which researchers can easily share data.

Seng-jaw Soong was a member of the cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid (caBIG) Strategic Planning Committee for the recently completed three-year pilot phase of the caBIG project.

As part of a group effort to change that, UAB is playing a key role in a National Cancer Institute (NCI) initiative to accelerate research discoveries and improve patient outcomes by linking researchers, physicians and patients within the cancer community — and the impact of the creation of the project could affect researchers across all disciplines at UAB and beyond.

Known as the cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid (caBIG), the project is the cornerstone of NCI’s biomedical informatics efforts to transform cancer research into a more collaborative, efficient and effective endeavor. Its mission is to promote and facilitate a set of common data standards, interoperable infrastructure, tools for applying information associated with cancer research and care and secure data-sharing.

“This is a major initiative, and UAB is excited to be part of the planning and development,” says Seng-jaw Soong, Ph.D., director of the Biostatistics and Bioinformatics Unit in the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. Soong, a member of the caBIG Strategic Planning Committee for the recently completed three-year pilot phase of the project, also called it “an extremely complicated process.”

“In order to share effectively you have to have common vocabularies, open source codes, system resources that are freely obtainable, software products that meet compatibility standards, and a united network of systems that can be locally controlled,” he says. “It’s quite an undertaking.”

Large partnership
caBIG is a partnership comprising nearly 50 cancer centers and 30 other organizations with more than 800 people collaborating on these initiatives. Specific caBIG areas, or workspaces, were identified through a survey of NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers, such as UAB, to determine their top priorities.

The workspaces are developing applications, policy documents and other efforts within the initiative. Current workspaces include Architecture, Clinical Trial Management Systems, Data Sharing and Intellectual Capital, Integrative Cancer Research, In Vivo Imaging, Strategic Planning, Tissue Banks and Pathology Tools, Training and Vocabularies and Common Data Elements.

UAB has been an integral part of the Strategic Planning and Tissue Banks workspaces, and Soong hopes the next step in development will be the implementation of a clinical trial-management system.

“Our cancer center currently is involved in more than 200 clinical trials, and we need to have a system that can communicate with other clinical trial networks sponsored by NCI,” Soong says. “In our unit we have developed our own information systems and have a Web-based data entry system that includes about 40-50 institutions around the country. This is a much more limited scale compared to caBIG because we developed it for our own use.

“I’m really hoping that in the next two or three years all of our information systems will be caBIG-compatible.”

Many benefits
Soong says other clinical researchers across the country are looking at caBIG tools and infrastructure to see if they can be implemented in other areas.

The National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration already are investigating the caBIG system’s future adoptability and applications for other research areas, Soong says, and there is a strong potential this project will affect other disciplines at UAB, too.

“This has an opportunity to affect all UAB’s research, opening up an avenue of possibilities to give researchers vast amounts of readily available information and a large number of sharable tools to speed up research projects,” Soong says. “It’s certainly to our advantage to be very actively involved in this major NCI initiative.”