They solved DNA, now for a real test

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The Independent Online
A new consortium of biotechnology and software companies has pitched itself at solving one of the most pressing problems in medicine ­ getting all the scientists around the world to speak the same language.

A new consortium of biotechnology and software companies has pitched itself at solving one of the most pressing problems in medicine ­ getting all the scientists around the world to speak the same language.

Since the completion of the Human Genome Project, the biotechnology industry has been drowning in a flood of its own data. Biologists, both in the academic and business worlds, have spent the past few years generating enormous archives in their hunt for the fundamental causes of disease. But because that information is being produced by hundreds of labs around the world, each with different computer systems and ways of recording data, the result has been widespread confusion.

But the new coalition, led by the Washington-based Biotech-nology Industry Organisation (BIO), plans to spend the next year creating a standardised global language for the biotech and pharmaceutical industry.

At the moment, researchers trying to tap a wide variety of biological data sources confront huge problems tying them together, viewing them in a common format, or running them through different computer systems. To date, solutions have involved makeshift software conversions that are slow, expensive and do not work terribly well.

BIO's plan is to spell out the types of biological information that databases can contain and to specify once and for all a set of rules for searching, manipulating and linking the data. The idea is that all new software would follow the rules, and old databases be brought up to speed.

Nearly 35 companies and organisations have taken part in discussions about the project, and a spokesman for BIO predicted that many more would join as details emerge. A number of large groups, including the National Cancer Institute, are taking part, and because the project is principally a computer-related problem, Sun Microsystems and IBM are also centrally involved.

Jeff Augen, director of strategy for life sciences at IBM, said: "Once the human genome had been sequenced, it was like the starting gun had been fired. All of a sudden, this data began pouring into the databases. What everyone real- ised was that making use of the data was the real challenge."

The group is particularly keen to drum up interest among big UK pharmaceutical companies such as GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca.

"When companies as big as this get involved, biologists around the world are going to realise that a single standard is the way forward," said a BIO spokesman.

The whole system would resemble the "common language" specifications that Microsoft and Apple Computer already publish so that other companies can write software for their operating systems.

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