Information technology (IT) hopes to rescue biotechnology research labs from their current crisis of data overload. With IT comes the promise to greatly improve and speed up the development of new medical treatments and devices, as well as enhance the bottom line of life science companies that are burning through mounds of cash just to get one drug to market. Currently, it takes about 20 years and costs nearly $1 billion to successfully put a new pharmaceutical on drugstore shelves.
For technology companies, the convergence of IT and life science presents a golden opportunity. Computer and networking giants such as IBM and Sun Microsystems have invested to drive this convergence. For example, IBM Life Sciences brings together IBM resources – from research and e-business expertise to data and storage management and high-performance computing – to offer solutions for the life sciences market, including the biotechnology, genomic, e-health, pharmaceutical, and agri-science industries. Sun Microsystems has launched several programs, such as its Discovery Informatics & Life Sciences Program.
In the labs of Biosite in San Diego, Ruben Dario Flores-Saaib, a clinical scientist, works with a team on the leading edge of the bio-IT convergence. Mr. Flores-Saaib employs "bioinformatics" to design and develop diagnostic devices for emergency rooms, hospitals, and doctor offices. Bioinformatics combines techniques from statistics, applied mathematics, and computer science to solve biological problems. For example, the technique allows Mr. Flores-Saiib's team to collect and test thousands of blood samples to identify biomarkers that can help doctors diagnose life-threatening diseases such as heart attacks. The tests only take about 15 minutes.
"Having rapid diagnostic tests for use at the point of care saves lives, as well as time and money for our customers," Mr. Flores-Saiib says. "Instead of having to do imaging or an EKG, they can do a 15-minute blood test and rule out other possible conditions. Using IT really automates the process. Six or seven years ago, scientists were looking at all these different protein concentrations and were analyzing each one and trying to make sense of what they meant. It was too time consuming."
The fusion of IT and life science has accelerated development of new fields such as proteomics, genomics, and nanotechnology. While nanotechnology has delivered improvements in products from sunscreen to tennis balls to "smart pants," it has the promise to revolutionize medicine.
From a commercial perspective, nanotechnology involves the development of devices designed on the scale of a "nano," or billionth of a meter. The San Diego-based nonprofit organization NanoBioNexus facilitates partnerships and investment opportunities in nanobiotechnology, and its convergence with biotechnology.
"I saw the trend toward miniaturization many years ago," says NanoBioNexus Chairwoman Adriana Vela, who has worked for tech giants Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, and Tandem Computers. "I'm very driven to understand this space because I am in the same position as the people who are my target audience – the non-scientists, business professionals, medical health consumers, and investors. I want to know how nanotechnology is going to impact medical technology. I want to know what the investment opportunities are."
Based on her research, Ms. Vela believes nanotechnology will change product development in many industries. "Nanotechnology promises to be an even bigger revolutionary technology than the Internet," she predicts. "It will fundamentally change how we build new technologies."
Investors have responded to this message. In 2004, global governments invested $4.6 billion in nanotechnology, with 35 percent of that amount going to North American companies, research institutes, and universities, according to the "Nanotech Report 2004" from Lux Research. For Hispanic entrepreneurs, this is a prime time to seek opportunities, Ms. Vela advises. "We want to help educate people on the opportunities," she says. "There is also money available through Small Business Innovation Research Grants to help further develop inventions. This is a great time for entrepreneurs to address serious health issues and to team up with investors to take these new converging technologies to commercialization."
Opportunities exist on both the biological and computer sides of the convergence. Roman Diaz, a former high-tech entrepreneur, now designs open-source software for the Life Sciences Information Technology (LSIT) Global Institute, a nonprofit with the mission to develop publicly available informatics practices for the life and health sciences. LSIT programs allow biotech and pharmaceutical companies to collect, store, manage, and analyze scientific data and then submit it electronically to the Food and Drug Administration, thus saving time and money. The LSIT Global Institute also acts as a reference laboratory and hopes to perform the role that Underwriter Laboratories fills for the electrical appliance industry – a UL listing ensures the safety and effectiveness of a device.
"What we're trying to do is provide practices that will help scientists and companies focus on what they're supposed to be doing so they don't have to deal with the idiosyncrasies of the technologies," says Mr. Diaz, former head of data warehousing at NCR Corp.'s Global Industry Applications Division. "Having everybody trying to find out the best way to use information technology in drug discovery is not a very efficient way of using your resources."
While opportunities look bright, the documented scarcity of Hispanics in the health sciences spills over into the health research industry. Mr. Diaz acknowledges taking "a great pride knowing that as a Hispanic, I'm able to participate in this and make a contribution," but he's a pioneer in the industry. "I am bringing my knowledge and skills to an industry that could use that knowledge to help find the next cure faster," he says.
With Mr. Diaz working on the technical side of the convergence, and Ms. Vela on the investment side, Mr. Flores-Saiib looks at the big challenge of making new science relevant to ordinary consumers. "What's really interesting is that we're able to have an impact on patient care," he says, referring to his blood testing products. "It's very important that doctors are made aware of the technology and that they start adopting and using it. We are actually beginning to see that. Doctors are favorably responding to this new technology [convergence]. They see it saves lives."
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