Computing grid aimed at cancer

National Library of Medicine-funded computing grid is designed for advanced methods of breast cancer screening

The National Library of Medicine is funding a new computing grid from the University of Pennsylvania and IBM Corp. that will be unveiled today and is designed for advanced methods of breast cancer diagnosis and screening.

The University of Pennsylvania grid was built with open standards and delivers computing resources as a utility-like service via the Internet. NLM is funding the project at more than $3.8 million, according to the agency.

Hospitals are connected to the grid via secure Web portals that enable authorized physicians to upload, download and analyze digitized X-ray data, said Robert Hollebeek, director of the University of Pennsylvania's National Scalable Cluster Project.

With help from the Energy Department's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the new grid currently connects four hospitals at the universities of Pennsylvania, Chicago and North Carolina, and the Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, in test mode. A clinical model is scheduled to begin in the first quarter of next year, Hollebeek said.

Thousands of hospitals eventually will be able to store mammograms in digital form on the grid, which will provide analytical tools to help physicians diagnose individual cases and identify cancer "clusters" in the population. It will also give authorized medical personnel near-real-time access to patient records, while reducing the need for film X-rays.

Grid features include:

*Fast data retrieval. Authorized physicians have immediate access to a patient's complete history of mammograms, no matter where or when the X-rays were taken.

* Computer-assisted diagnosis. X-ray data can be scanned with software that identifies potential tumors and other problems, helping physicians diagnose patient illnesses.

* Pattern identification. 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. Estimates indicate that participation in the grid will 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.

Hollebeek said the ultimate goal of the project is for a radiologist who spots something suspicious in a mammogram to be able to have all of the patient's medical records instantly available — regardless of where they originated — along with computer-aided analysis to help diagnose the abnormality as quickly and accurately as possible.

The University of Pennsylvania grid is built with a three-tier architecture that uses IBM eServers and open protocols from the Globus Project, a consortium of government and educational institutions working on grid-computing research. The three-tiered system runs on the AIX, Linux and Microsoft Corp. Windows operating systems.

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 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 in its prototype phase with an IBM eServer Cluster 1300 Linux system.

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