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IBC's Bioinformatics Symposium: Challenges for a New Field.

Bioinformatics integrates computer science and biology by providing software tools that merge the collection, organization, visualization, analysis and integration of biological data. Bioinformatics software makes sense out of vast amounts of biological data generated from genome sequencing, gene expression profiling and SNP analysis. It turns primary data into useful knowledge by enabling collaborations between scientists with an efficient, user-friendly interface for online data sources.

One of the most basic functions of bioinformatics involves searching for similarities, or homologies, between newly sequenced DNA segments and previously sequenced DNA segments from various organisms. The match provides information about the type of protein to be encoded, which greatly assists in the identification of drug targets.

With the growth of high-throughput screening, automated combinatorial chemistry, microarrays and automated DNA sequencing, to name a few developments, the amount of data generated and analyzed is growing exponentially. The human genome and GenBank are just two examples of the large amount of data that need to be processed using bioinformatics software. Approximately 3.12 billion chemical bases, the sub-units that make up DNA, were made available to the public when The Human Genome Project and Celera Genomics jointly announced earlier this year the assembly of the world's first working draft of the entire human genetic code. Even this enormous amount of data pales in comparison to GenBank's database. GenBank is the National Institute of Health's database of genetic sequences of humans and over 47,000 other organisms. There are approximately 10,336,000,000 bases in 9,103,000 sequence records in the database as of October 2000.

In addition to these databases of information, scientists are generating more information about the details of when and in which tissues of the body various genes are turned on, the shapes of the proteins the genes encode, and how the proteins interact with one another. Yet this data, like the data from GenBank and the newly sequenced human genome, is largely useless unless it can be properly organized, analyzed and integrated. This is where bioinformatics comes in.

Numerous companies are vying for profit shares from the exploding field of bioinformatics. Over fifty private and publicly traded companies offer bioinformatic products and services, and the number of companies continues to grow. Several estimates put the bioinformatics business at between $1 billion and $2 billion within five years. Some of the major software players in the market include Lion Bioscience, InforMax, Oxford Molecular Group, NetGenics, Double Twist and Compugen. Most of these bioinformatics vendors sell access to their information to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies at large subscription prices that can run into the millions of dollars. In addition, well-known hardware vendors such as IBM, Compaq, and Sun are heavily funding the area and forming collaborations.

IBO has noted an increasing number of symposiums focusing on the field of bioinformatics. Recently, IBO attended the IBC Bioinformatics: Genome Analysis and Annotation Symposium held October 18 to 19 at the Wigwam Resort in Litchfield Park, Arizona. The Bioinformatics Symposium was part of three seminars held in one event. The other two conferences that were held before the bioinformatics session were Proteomics: Rapid Target Identification & Validation and Functional Genomics: From Genome to Function. Attendance was approximately 150 for the proteomics session, 75 for the functional genomics session and 100 for the bioinformatics session. Although this was the first time bioinformatics was part of the event, the number in attendance was very respectable.

Sarted in 1997, the IBC Symposium has switched back and forth from the East Coast to the West Coast. Next year, it will be at the Loews hotel in Philadelphia May 14 to 17 which will facilitate the attendance of more European participants. IBC Global Life Science, which organized the event, has been organizing symposiums and seminars for the pharmaceutical industry for the past twenty years and this conference was part of its Drug Discovery Technology Series. Their past symposiums have covered subjects such as drug discovery and development, clinical trials, therapeutics, manufacturing and scale-up, regulatory affairs, informational technology, and pharmaceutical business strategies.

Dr. Martin Leach, head of Bioinformatics at CuraGen, headed the bioinformatics symposium. In his opening remarks, Dr. Leach stated that he hoped the symposium would answer the following questions: What do we do with all of the data? How can we share the information more easily? How do we build relationships between the data? How do we view and manipulate the data? How can we extract the most value from the data?

Unlike most symposiums, the opening speaker was not a well-known scientist. Instead, Laurie Irwin, a bioinformatics consultant, who spoke about the challenges in recruiting and training bioinformatics experts, gave the opening address. Many pharmaceutical and biotech companies are having a difficult time finding scientists with both a biology and computer science background.

The focus of the symposium was the presentation of new technologies and developments. Featuring vendors such as Sun and TimeLogic, the Computing Platforms for Accelerating Bioinformatics Analysis session discussed new, high-powered, efficient bioinformatics hardware. The Gene Prediction session focused on the potential bottleneck of expressed gene prediction. The From Sequence to Function discussion highlighted protein functionality, which is the integration of experimental results, predictions and structural inferences. Data Formats, Annotation and Integration focused on standardization and on the increasing use of XML software as the developing standard. The day ended with a session entitled Legal and Regulatory Considerations, including an interesting talk by Ivor Elrifi regarding intellectual property and the pitfalls in patenting sequences. Mr. Elrifi emphasized the specificity of gene utilization when patenting a gene and reviewed the litigation history in this area.

In addition to the presentation, twenty-six vendors exhibited their instruments, hardware and software. Although this is not a large group of vendors, some exhibited because end-users are a highly focused group. The event also gives vendors the opportunity to interact with counterparts in the same field, though announcements and product introductions are not a staple at these forums. Instrument companies exhibiting at the show included Agilent, Amersham Pharmacia, Genomic Solutions and ThermoQuest.

The Bioinformatics Symposium cancelled several talks, which was quite disappointing for attendees who paid a high cost for the hotel and conference. However, IBC profusely apologized and offered a $500 voucher to attendees for another symposium. Although IBO did not attend the first two symposiums on functional genomics and proteomics, people were quite enthusiastic about the wealth of information presented at the bioinformatics session, highlighting the growing need for regularly scheduled bioinformatic conferences.
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Comment:IBC's Bioinformatics Symposium: Challenges for a New Field.
Publication:Instrument Business Outlook
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Date:Oct 31, 2000
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