NIH cancer informatics drive goes under the knife

The NIH's major cancer informatics initiative that has never quite caught on appears to be in a state of flux after a bad report card from government advisors last year. Despite gossip in informatics circles that the group's time had come, an interim steward of the initiative, called caBIG (Cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid), told Bio-IT World that the program has survived the harsh critique.

But not all the tools that emerged from its work over the past 8 years are expected to remain in place. The group is consulting with researchers and advisors to figure out which tools to keep at NCI and which one to let loose for others to maintain or cut altogether.

"Some of these [tools] may go out before there is an identified community that has decided that they want to adopt it, and some of them may go out when there's a clear adoptive community," George Komatsoulis, interim director of National Cancer Institute's Center for Biomedical Informatics and Information Technology, told the magazine. "Everything's basically on the table. If the tool or service isn't providing sufficient value to the community, it's going to be eliminated."   

CaBIG, which initially set out to be a world wide web for cancer researchers, has failed to build a portfolio of tools and a common platform that are as indispensable to the cancer research community as the Internet is to the average consumer. Last year an advisory group called for a stoppage on all new caBIG projects, a thorough inspection of the program's expenditures and essentially said that the outfit had lost its way.

The former director of caBIG, Kenneth Buetow, resigned last year and headed to the desert for a job at Arizona State University.

CaBIG's original mission, which calls for a common platform for cancer researchers, has merit. Whether the government pursues this mission under the caBIG banner, of course, is less important than whether such a platform ever becomes a reality. Cancer keeps on tripping up researchers with its colossal complexity, and getting researchers to use a common digital language for their studies and better tools to analyze data is as crucial to understanding the disease as ever.

- get more in the Bio-IT World article

Special Report: caBIG - 5 Useful Online Biology Research Tools