University of Pennsylvania and IBM build computing Grid for breast cancer diagnosis and screening

Armonk 28 November 2001IBM and the University of Pennsylvania launched a powerful computing Grid which aims to bring advanced methods of breast cancer diagnosis and screening to patients across the United States, while reducing costs. Built with open standards, the University of Pennsylvania Grid is a massive distributed computer that delivers computing resources as a utility-like service over the Internet.


Enabling up to thousands of hospitals to store mammograms in digital form, the Grid will provide analytical tools which help physicians diagnose individual cases and identify cancer "clusters" in the population. It will also give authorised medical personnel near-instantaneous access to patient records and reduce the need for expensive film X-rays. The system combines IBM eServer, UNIX, and Intel processor-based systems with IBM's DB2 Universal Database to create a uniquely powerful solution.

Just as electricity is delivered to homes over an electrical grid, Computing Grids allow geographically distributed organisations to share applications, data, and computing resources. A new model of computing, Grids are clusters of servers joined together over the Internet, using protocols provided by the Globus open source community and other open technologies, including Linux.

"Once a patient's mammograms are loaded into the system, they can be evaluated with powerful tools that isolate abnormalities very quickly by comparing current X-rays with those from previous years", stated Dr. Robert Hollebeek, director of the university's National Scalable Cluster Lab. "Traditional film X-rays of individual patients are often scattered among various medical facilities, making them hard to find when needed. This Grid will help ensure that all of a patient's vital data is provided to authorised physicians very quickly, efficiently, and securely."

Hospitals are connected to the Grid via secure Internet portals which allow authorised physicians to upload, download, and analyse digitised X-ray data. Advantages of the Grid include:

  • Fast data retrieval: authorised physicians have immediate access to a patient's previous and current mammograms, no matter where or when the X-rays were taken.
  • Computer-assisted diagnosis: X-ray data can be scanned with powerful software which identifies potential tumours and other problems, helping physicians diagnose patient illnesses.
  • Pattern identification: sophisticated algorithms can uncover patterns that appear in the population, such as cancer "clusters", or abnormal concentrations of the disease in a particular community.
  • Cost savings: each year, the average hospital spends $4 million to develop X-ray films, according to estimates. Participation in the Grid could result in an average yearly cost savings in the millions of dollars.
  • Training: a suite of educational tools will be deployed on the Grid to help doctors, medical students, and interns learn more about breast cancer and related diseases.

Now in its early stages of deployment, the University of Pennsylvania Grid, in collaboration with a group from Oak Ridge National Laboratory connects hospitals at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago, University of North Carolina, and the Sunnybrook and Women's College Hospital in Toronto. It is funded by the National Library of Medicine. In the future, the University of Pennsylvania will work to extend the Grid to additional medical institutions. The design of the system is capable of serving thousands of hospitals.

The University of Pennsylvania Grid is built with a three-tier architecture that leverages the strengths of IBM eServer and open protocols from Globus. At the user level, each participating hospital is equipped with a portal consisting of two IBM eServer xSeries systems. One xSeries machine serves as a temporary repository for the digital data, and the other is a link to the next generation of the Internet, called Internet2.

Once the data is loaded into the portal, it is transmitted to a metropolitan hub, an IBM eServer Cluster 1600 UNIX system. When the Grid is fully deployed, data from several metropolitan hubs will be funneled to a high-capacity regional hub, which is now being prototyped with an IBM eServer Cluster 1300 Linux system. The three-tiered system, running AIX, Linux and Windows, illustrates the inherent heterogeneity of computing Grids. Teams from IBM and the University of Pennsylvania are partnering to develop a fast-access, very large capacity DB2 Universal Database to serve as the secure, highly-available repository for the digitised X-ray data.

The University of Pennsylvania Grid is the latest in a series of Grid projects which illustrates IBM's leadership in this space. Earlier this month, IBM was selected to build the North Carolina Bioinformatics Grid, which will be developed in collaboration with GlaxoSmithKline Inc., Biogen, the University of North Carolina, Duke University, and other organisations.

In August, IBM was selected by a consortium of four United States research centres to build the world's most powerful computing Grid, an interconnected series of Linux clusters capable of processing 13.6 trillion calculations per second. The Grid system, known as the Distributed Terascale Facility (DTF), will enable thousands of scientists around the country to share computing resources over the world's fastest research network in search of breakthroughs in life sciences, climate modelling, and other critical disciplines.

IBM is also partnering with several centres in the UK National Grid to provide key technologies and infrastructure for the project, which is linking a massive network of computers throughout the United Kingdom. In addition, IBM is building a powerful computing Grid for universities in the Netherlands. News about the North Carolina Bioinformatics Grid is available in the VMW December 2001 article North Carolina MCNC Corporation and IBM build Bioinformatics Grid to support drug discovery.

Leslie Versweyveld

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