Telemedicine pilots showcased at the opening of the new British National e-Science Centre

Edinburgh 25 April 2002The opening of a new National e-Science Centre (NeSC), run jointly by the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, will spearhead the United Kingdom's work on major e-Science initiatives which require huge computing resources and collaboration between scientists and industrialists both in the United Kingdom and around the world. At the opening ceremony, some twenty pilot projects were showcased to prove how Grid Computing, using the combined power of distributed computers, could solve real-life e-Science challenges. A fair number of these demonstrators are situated in the medical field.

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The official opening of the Centre brought together many of the leading lights in e-Science from government, academia, Research Councils, and industry. More than 180 visitors listened to Malcom Atkinson, Director of the NeSC, who gave a brief overview of the mission and activities of the Centre. The role of NeSC is to co-ordinate and stimualte e-Science by building an e-Science Grid, to develop communities and provide training. NeSC will establish an international research venue with an e-Science Institute, that is supplemented with a research visitor programme.

Although it has just been opened officially, the Centre started its activities already in August 2001. Meanwhile, some 30 events have been organised with a total of 700 different participants. The vision of e-Science is inclusive in nature and seeks to allow those in sophisticated research labs to work together with scientists in the field. It is expected that computer science research resulting from the e-Science programme will also be relevant to e-Business, e-Commerce, e-Medicine, and e-Government.

In e-Medicine, for instance, research could result in an infrastructure to support large-scale continuous monitoring of medical data via implanted or on-body sensors and wireless transmission to monitoring organisations. This would provide medical researchers with the data required to implement automated early detection and notification of adverse reactions to drugs, the detection of a whole range of problems such as adverse cardiac events, blood chemistry imbalance, and so on.

The demonstrators on show at the opening of NeSC included telemedicine and a Dynamic Brain Atlas. The telemedicine pilot project will provide a secure infrastructure allowing medical experts to tele-conference and consult on medical data and harness the power of distributed computing to map, compare and analyse results. By drawing on remote expertise, this will enhance clinical treatment and increase continuity of care.

The Dynamic Brain Atlas was created by scientists at King's College London, Imperial College London and Oxford University with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). Scientists have unveiled new technology that may one day help doctors identify subtle brain abnormalities underlying major diseases including many psychiatric disorders and dementia.

In many cases it is difficult to precisely identify the nature of brain abnormalities from brain scans. However, armed with a notebook computer, this system will allow radiologists to compare a patient's scan with a brain atlas customised to that patient, which has been dynamically generated from hundreds of images stored around the world.

Dr. Derek Hill, Senior Lecturer in Radiological Sciences at King's College London, stated: "Applying this technology a doctor could use a networked portable computer to compare a patient's brain scan from the hospital computer system with a dynamically generated brain atlas customised to that patient. This brain atlas will show the normal range of size and shape of brain structures for a person of the same age, gender, and past medical history as the current patient."

"Much like an Internet search, a doctor would enter in the desired properties of the customised atlas and click go. Using Grid technology, the patient image is securely uploaded to ensure patient confidentiality, and simultaneously, images of many reference subjects which have the appropriate properties are securely accessed. Then, computing power around the world is used to match each reference image to the patient to make a customised brain atlas. After a few seconds, the doctor can see the patient images alongside the brain atlas, or can see the patient images with features from the atlas overlaid, enabling them to pinpoint the regions of the brain that are abnormal", Dr. Hill explained.

In his introductory comments, Professor Atkinson stated: "NeSC is dedicated to realising the potential of developments in e-Science. The first step is turning demonstrators into applications that will have a real impact in their own field. The second is ensuring breakthroughs in one field benefit wider scientific and industrial communities. As was the case with the Internet, we expect it will take around 10 years of research and development to make these benefits routinely available."

Another pilot that was demonstrated at the NeSC opening constitutes the West Anglia Cancer Network (WACN) showing how the capability of Grid technology can improve the delivery of patient care in the West Anglia region and potentially throughout the British National Health Service. The project's ultimate goal is to provide as much treatment as possible at the patient's home, thus reducing considerably the time needed for clinicians to travel.

The West Anglia Cancer Network (WACN) provides cancer services for 1,6 million people. The Cancer Centre for the network is based at Addenbrooke's Hospital in collaboration with Papworth Hospital for patients with lung cancer. Six more Cancer Units at Bedford, King's Lynn, Peterborough, Hinchingbrooke, West Suffolk and Harlow Hospitals, together with the Cancer Centre at Addenbrooke's, serve the remainder of the region.

A desirable goal is to provide care as near as possible to the patient's home. Continuity of care is also maintained for patients who require treatment at the Cancer Centre for radiotherapy as their treatment is planned by the same consultant they have seen at their nearest Cancer Unit. Today, clinicians are travelling large distances to provide remote clinical services. The project will investigate the use of technology to prevent such travel and provide access to appropriate clinical information and images across the network.

Specifically, WACN will provide a secure infrastructure for:

  • multi-site videoconferencing
  • real time delivery of microscope imagery and
  • communication and archiving of radiological images
to support multi-disciplinary meetings for the review of cancer diagnoses and treatment.

Thus, a future ubiquitous computing infrastructure will be part of our everyday life, supported by a human-centred approach to computing. According to the e-Science programme's vision, we need to understand the impact this will have at work and in the home and how it will affect public interaction with services such as government, education, and health care. An economic model should be developed for funding and supporting this infrastructure. This raises a set of challenges for the computing community. The United Kingdom wants to address them in partnership with academic institutions and industry.

As Professor Tony Hey, Director of the UK e-Science Core Programme, stated: "We have a GBP118 million programme in place which is already delivering results and putting the United Kingdom on the map. In addition to the GBP98 million the Office of Science and Technology (OST) is investing in e-Science, DTI has contributed GBP20 million towards the e-Science core programme."

NeSC is also the base for the eDIKT project, funded by a grant of over GBP2 million from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council in March 2002. The project will enable Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities to work together to construct novel data management and interpretation software tools. More details are available at the NeSC Web site.


Leslie Versweyveld

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