The BioNOME Resource: a new approach in biomedical science

San Diego, 30 October 97 Biomedical scientists nowadays are spending far less time testing with animals in their laboratories. They are running their biological models on a supercomputer to predict the effects of drugs, chemicals and other physical factors on humans and other organisms. To analyse the complex processes of life, the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) will soon develop the BioNOME Resource to assist biologists in creating better models that describe how various living systems regulate themselves and interact with each other. Andrew McCulloch, co-director of the program and professor of bioengineering at the University of California, San Diego School of Engineering, situates this Biology Network of Modelling Efforts (BioNOME) in its full context.

McCulloch plans on setting up a globally accessible web site to the benefit of scientists, allowing them to present their mathematical models via active links in order to stimulate interaction between the scientific community. Tight collaboration is made possible by the SDSC computer scientists whose software will enable them to build integrated structures of complex systems and functions out of individual models.

At present, SDSC is concentrating on models of the cardiac cell and anatomic models to simulate the electrical rhythms of the whole heart. Procter & Gamble was willing to sponsor these initial efforts with a $900.000 donation because of the interest in finding out how chemicals carry messages between and within cells. If new knowledge about the causes of heart failure can derive from this kind of research, the project will already have proven its success.

Still more advantages are being cited by McCulloch. If computer modelling can help to develop drugs with fewer side effects and more active working on the very spot of weakness, if better medical devices and improved medical diagnostic procedures are the result of supercomputing as well as the diminishing need for repeated testing with animals, this will constitute both a victory and a blessing for biomedical science.

The main key of this information technology is predictability; the challenge is organisation of the vast amounts of experimental data. High-performance computers, data archives and high-speed networks of the next generation form the tools for the construction of integrated models. What the BioNOME resource is predicting, will whether be validated by laboratory experiments, whether be contradicted. Revision of theories and assumptions, internal or external factor changing, all is provided for in the computer infrastructure.

Second co-director, Dr. Lynn F. Ten Eyck, a senior staff scientist at SDSC, stresses the importance of a scientific editorial board used by the resource to guarantee the continuity as well as the quality of the models submitted to the web site. The BioNOME resource's strategy for reviewing, updating and sharing information is similar to that of the international Human Genome Project which actively focuses on identifying and mapping human genes. Scientific journals even wait to publish research details of this project until results are placed in the central computer.

According to McCulloch, the BioNOME resource is coming in time for projects such as the Human Genome and the Human Physiome, which concentrates on theoretical models of the body's major systems. Computer networking is opening up worlds of integrated information for the individual researcher, working on his own biological model in the silent seclusion of his study room. The BioNOME resource is a way of shooting through mutual sparks of knowledge, a means of fertilising scientific research, a revolutionary aid to connect brilliant models into an integrated chain which leads to insight in the complexities of life.

Leslie Versweyveld