IBM teams with UPenn for breast cancer research

IBM Corp. and the University of Pennsylvania joined forces Wednesday to battle breast cancer by creating a large computer network that will help hospitals and research centers more readily share information about the disease.

IBM has formed similar relationships with other companies and research bodies around the world, as the vendor tries to promote its "grid" model of computing. A grid helps link computing resources such as servers, storage and software over a shared network. Different organizations located around the globe can agree to link their computing power and data, opening up a flood of information and processing power to more users. This model of computing uses a set of protocols to link clusters of computers together, setting up security measures along the way to make sure only the right people see the right information.

A grid at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, will be designed to share digital copies of mammograms and related information between its hospitals and those located at the University of Chicago, the University of North Carolina and the Sunnybrook and Women's College Hospital in Toronto, said Dave Turek, vice president of high performance computing at IBM. The groups involved hope to expand the project to other schools and hospitals over time and will pick some organizations as hubs for the flow of information across the country.

"Mammographic data is created periodically but at point locations around the country," Turek said. "By providing grid access to the data, we can open up the information for analysis into a lot of interesting areas."

A broad network of hospitals sharing information could, for example, make it easier to pinpoint high instances of breast cancer in certain locations and perhaps show reasons why this might be occurring. In addition, a library of mammograms that can be easily search or categorized could help with diagnostic techniques as well, Turek said.

Putting all of the mammograms in digital format could also make people's lives easier as their medical information would be accessible wherever they go. Instead of sending a film x-ray from San Francisco to New York, a doctor could access the data by tapping into the grid. In a few years, the doctor will likely be able to pull the information up by clicking a couple of times on a handheld computer, making patient information more readily available, Turek said.

While handheld computers are low on processing power, the grid would be able to do all of the database searches and calculations, using hundreds of servers, and then send back only the information the doctor needs to the device.

"You take a handheld device and say 'I need an answer to a problem,'" Turek said. "You present that issue to the grid, and it goes on to solve it."

IBM and the University of Pennsylvania will start with a modest grid system, as they work out all of the necessary security and technology issues to make a larger network possible. With patient records and other types of sensitive data, IBM needs to assure that only authorized people can see the information over this vast array of computers.

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