If the genomics revolution moved biotechnology out of test tubes and into computers, companies with their eyes on reasonably timed profits have been trying to move it back.
But the best way to do that, say the organizers of the Interoperable Informatics Infrastructure Consortium (I3C), is to make computers work better together.
I3C's stated goal is a mouthful. The consortium wants "to develop common protocols and interoperable technologies (specifications and guidelines) for data exchange and knowledge management for the life-science community."
Its mission, I3C says, is "to facilitate and enable data exchange, data management and knowledge management across the entire life-science community by promoting common protocols that ensure interoperability in an open, consistent and robust manner."
About 100 companies and academic institutions have climbed aboard since I3C's founding in February 2001 by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the Whitehead Institute, Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc., IBM and Sun Microsystems Inc.
On the list of those taking part are such high-profile names in biotechnology as Affymetrix Inc. and Incyte Genomics Inc., and lesser known but respected firms such as Gene Logic Inc. and Hybrigenics SA.
"In a way, it's pre-competitive, it's making all the information from the point solutions, transparent to other point solutions," said Tim Clark, vice president of informatics for Millennium. Clark last week was elected chairman of I3C, as the group held its first official board meeting in Boston and chose its officers.
What about competition? Clark drew an example from the field of chemi-informatics, where researchers discovered that localized fixes didn't really fix much of anything.
"Many products are point solutions and companies use them and tie them together any which way," he said. "Now, supposing that we get a group of people together and we say we're going to get all vendors, [information technology] companies and customers, and build a model of how these things can interoperate, that illustrates the basic architecture you would use, and we'll publish all the interfaces and make them public domain."
That's what I3C is doing in biotechnology, he said.
Plenty of genomics firms spent a lot of time building "non-commodity infrastructures" with plenty of point solutions which "typically have a limited ability to communicate with one another. [Their value] is partly dependent on how much information they can integrate from other sources. Companies want to use software solutions in an overall approach, that goes up and down the value chain, and the IT companies want to get into this space badly."
He pointed to the involvement of IBM and Sun.
"It was not small potatoes to get those guys together, but they saw it's a big market," he said.
Some of I3C's work would be available through the Internet, and some would be used on site although the site has yet to be chosen, and the group is still seeking an executive director.
"We'll have a virtual, as well as a physical, work space," Clark told BioWorld Financial Watch. "This isn't a totally open source project, but the interfaces are open, and a lot can be done over the Internet. We're not talking about [coming up with a common] user interface," he added.
Clark pointed to the "web services model, because this is something we're using pretty extensively. You have half a dozen web pages that get data and present it to the user. Suppose you want to take data out of one web page and put it into the other. You don't want to be cutting and pasting. With high throughput, that's insane."
The process would work much faster, he said.
"You click on [the source for the data you seek] and it goes, 'I need the following classes of information, and I know the genes I need to look at. I won't tell you where I got them; I'm just going to give them to you,'" he said.
"The big value is in a new generation of drugs made much more productively [from genomics]," Clark added. "These are all molecules that are about information," but companies can't always "afford the hit" of remaking infrastructure they can apply to various sources of data and analysis.
Jill Mesirov, in charge of bioinformatics and computational biology at the Whitehead Institute Center for Genome Research, was elected vice chair. She compared I3C's ultimate function to that of a radio that can tune many stations, all of them competing.
"But you can still make a better radio," she said, noting that it might also be thought of as a registry.
"If you have a service, you have to tell people how to get to you," she said. "Tim and I come from the far ends of the spectrum, and the desire for this kind of integration is shared by both of us. There are more and more data repositories being established, and [the need] becomes more pressing as we gather more and more data."
Current methods are cumbersome, to say the least.
"If we can make these interfaces, and even the 'middleware' to tie things together, then companies get tremendous leverage, because they're not constantly reinventing the wheel," she said. "Every time we built a new system [previously], we were rebuilding our infrastructure."
Morrie Ruffin, vice president of business development at BIO, is another board member.
"We were hearing from members about this problem, and the absolute requirement for integration," Ruffin said. "A lot of this is coming form the user side the people buying the technology [to retrieve and organize data], a lot of them complaining about the huge expense."
Although I3C is just now coming into the public view, much has been done behind the scenes already, Ruffin told BioWorld Financial Watch.
"We spent a lot of time negotiating the details of what is the membership agreement for the organization and how we handle intellectual property," he said.
It's too early to tell, he added, whether companies and academic research outfits with preclinical work will benefit more than those with later-stage trials, aiming to design them properly,
"Our belief, going in, was that both groups would benefit equally," Ruffin said.
Clark, whom Ruffin called the "standard bearer" for the effort, said Millennium has "about 12 compounds in clinical trials now, and we're working on a pharmacogenomic aspect on just about every one, so this speaks very clearly to that need. But how do you do more effective lead optimization [as well]? What happens is that, if you can integrate the information, you can put a scientists at the control panel of this giant, virtual machine. They can get away from the test tube world, and [get] into having their experimental designs executed by robots."
Mesirov said I3C's work group will shortly disclose a target date for the "total reference architecture."
Progress over the last five years has changed everything, she added, making I3C a practical demand.
"We're automating laboratory processes, and so much of our preparations now are [already] being done robotically," she said. "Everybody would agree that making the interfaces public is a win. I don't see how anyone could think it's not."
Nor could information technology experts who may have become such on their ways to staying on top of biotechnology have missed the trend, Mesirov said.
"I don't think there was anybody in this domain who didn't see this coming," she said.