UBC’s bioinformatics centre gets Big Blue boost

The University of British Columbia has joined the ranks of Johns Hopkins University, the University of California San Diego and Indiana University, becoming the first Canadian post-secondary institution designated an IBM Life Sciences Institute of Innovation.

With the designation comes a cash and in-kind donation valued at $550,000 over three years to support bioinformatics research in areas such as human genetic disorders, heart disease, adverse drug reactions in children and prostate cancer. Specifically, the funding will allow the hiring of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows.

It’s not the first support IBM has given to UBC’s Bioinformatics Centre (UBIC). Recent grants supplied the centre with two IBM servers to support the high-performance computing requirements of their research. An IBM eServer pSeries p690, for example, is being used for bioinformatics research looking at RNA interference, and an eServer pSeries p570 is being used on a research project to better understand organ transplant rejection.

With the latest designation, IBM’s support to UBIC now totals $1.5 million.

UBIC director Francis Ouellette said IBM’s support has been very important over the years, and to be grouped now with schools like John Hopkins is quite an honour.

It’s a natural relationship, because Ouellette said IT has become mission-critical to bioinformatics research.

“We depend on it being stable and robust, we depend on it being well supported,” said Ouellette.

He said the databases they use are doubling faster then processing speed, so they need to take full advantage of the latest advances in technology to fuel their research. That includes faster access to databases, better algorithms and software and faster processing, as well as clustering of processors.

Their work involves comparative genomics, comparing multiple genomes against each other, which involves a lot of parallel processing operations.

“We’ve developed an application that allows us to do a number of analysis in parallel, which turns an application that would take days into one we can do in hours,” said Ouellette. “It saves a lot of time.”

The technology allows researchers to better work with and analyze more and more data, to try and answer some of the basic life sciences questions in a way they weren’t able to before.

“It’s understanding all the parts of a genome and how they interact with each other,” said Ouellette. “It could be curing cancer, or it could be understanding neuro-degenerative diseases.”

Jeff Betts, business development manager for IBM Life Sciences in BC, said IBM was chosen for the institute of innovation designation in an international competition with over a dozen universities competing globally.

He said UBC has a number of life sciences researchers with a global reputation that are pushing the boundaries of how informatics is used in health research.

“Those are the kinds of scientists we think are going to define the future of health care in the post-genomic age,” said Betts. “That’s why we’ve been working closely with them for a number of years, and why we feel UBC deserves this recognition.”

Technology is changing the map in the health-care and life sciences space, and has become a billion dollar business for IBM. Betts said the company’s support of institutions like UBC gives IBM headlights into what’s coming in the future of medicine and how medicine and informatics overlap.

“It’s through relationships with leading scientists that we get that kind of insight,” said Betts. “We see how they use informatics to extend their understanding of disease and what leads to disease. I guess it’s enlightened self-interest.”

In the post-genomic era, after the mapping of the human genome, biology is now an information science. Betts said it’s a sea change.

“If you want to understand disease and the mechanisms behind human health, it’s a coding problem now based on genomics, and you need computers to manage and manipulate the vast amounts of information associated with genomics,” said Betts.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras is a technology journalist with IT World Canada and a member of the IT Business team. He began his career in technology journalism in the late 1990s, covering the Ottawa technology sector for Silicon Valley North and the Ottawa Business Journal. He later covered the technology scene in Vancouver before joining IT World Canada in Toronto in 2005, covering enterprise IT for ComputerWorld Canada and the channel for Computer Dealer News. His writing has also appeared in the Vancouver Sun & the Ottawa Citizen.

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