Open-Source Initiative Targets Bird Flu

Health organizations, universities and IBM are trying to figure out how computer technology can contribute to the effort to respond to disease outbreaks.

In whats being hailed as an open-source initiative against a pandemic, some 20 global health organizations, universities and technology giant IBM are teaming up to figure out how computer technology can help respond to infectious disease outbreaks.

As part of the Global Pandemic Initiative, launched May 15, IBM said it would contribute software technologies to the open-source community.

Some software will allow electronic health information to be more easily shared and mined for trends about outbreaks how disease could spread. Other technology will predict how viruses could mutate.

The head of philanthropy at Google, Larry Brilliant, has also described his vision for how information technology can be used to fight pandemics.

As a doctor working for the World Health Organization, Brilliant is widely believed to have treated the last case of smallpox before the disease was eradicated.

For years, IBM has been teaming up with large medical centers, including initiative partner University of Pittsburgh, to develop text-mining technologies that could be used to assess what treatment regimens are most appropriate for what patients. It has also been involved in similar text-mining and data-mining exercises in the scientific literature.

/zimages/4/28571.gifTo read more about IBMs collaboration with medical centers, click here.

IBM has created a software framework, IHII (Interoperable Healthcare Information Infrastructure), to ease sharing of health data.

In a statement, IBM announced plans to "expand the role of IHII to include public health issues, responding to global calls for pandemic preparedness by facilitating the sharing of clinical data among medical facilities, laboratories and public health agencies."

In February 2005, IBM released biosurveillance and quality of care data that had previously been tested by the Centers for Disease Control and other government agencies.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read more about IBMs clinical data exchange software for hospitals and health care agencies.

It also plans to build an open-source community dedicated to using epidemiology tools to rapidly develop models about how disease might spread from place to place.

The STEM (Spatio-Temporal Epidemiological Modeler) is designed to tap into information from IHII and other data sources like roadmaps, transportation infrastructure and animal migration patterns. The models could inform preparedness plans such as vaccine distribution.

Another collaboration will predict how viruses may mutate and use these predictions to design vaccines.

Using high-performance computing systems, such as IBMs BlueGene supercomputer, researchers at The Scripps Research Institute will decide what vaccines are likely to stay effective as a pathogen evolves.

Vaccines work by teaching the immune system to recognize and attack shapes formed in proteins found in pathogens.

Mutations can cause these shapes to change and render vaccines ineffective.

Supercomputers are already used to study how proteins fold into complex, three-dimensional shapes, but their predictions are not always reliable.

IBM scientists at the companys Research Labs in China, India, Israel, Japan, Switzerland and the United States will serve as focal points for the collaboration.

Among the members of the Pandemic Initiative steering committee are the U.S. Agency for International Development, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, Scripps Research Institute and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centers Center for Biosecurity.

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