Medical Research and Open Source: Competition Trumps Collaboration

Proponents of open source software are trying to make a case for using the collaborative approach to conquer the world’s most vexing medical problems. However, established practices of avoiding the spotlight and protecting vested interests in breakthrough results still hamper the collaborative process.

This kind of proprietary work ethic leads to researchers arriving at similar discoveries independently. For example, we often see a Nobel Prize awarded to two people who worked separately on the same problem. The possibility of pooling such research to go even further together is not a main priority among many researchers.

Open source cannot readily change that “working in the dark” mentality that is typical with medical researchers, but the concept of sharing and communicating among the labs that line the hallways of academia and the medical industry is starting to gather interest.

“In academia, institutions are becoming more sensitive to intellectual property. I deal with this every week when I try to set up research agreements. Enhancing collaboration is a great idea, but it poses some practical implications that are a big hassle to managing research projects,” said Daniel C. Sigg, the scientific group leader for biotechnology programs at Medtronic and an adjunct professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology.

Coming to Terms

From a company standpoint, researchers do not always pursue a high level of collaboration, but a lot of medical researchers can learn from computer collaboration, Sigg told LinuxInsider.

“In medical research we have peer review, which is a relatively stringent process. This is not the same thing as open source,” he explained.

Medical researchers are more concerned with solving problems than with winning patents. From a company perspective, this is a big concern, he noted.

Sigg favors a push from the government as a solution to researchers’ hesitancy to collaborate more willingly. He sees a trend in the academic world that recognizes the need for collaboration. For one reason, academic researchers do not have all the top laboratory equipment available in commercial labs.

Who Owns What?

A major problem for medical researchers is honoring strict codes of confidentiality. Some of these codes are legal in nature. Others are ethical and often involved a sense of preserving the home turf. For example, researchers often need to obtain patient permissions to disclose or share testing results and medical information.

In his role within the corporate walls, Sigg does not rely on open source projects for collaboration to any great extent. Instead, he taps into large medical databases such as the one maintained at Duke University. But he does concede that there are some databases that pool knowledge and encourage research to join forces.

While collaborating on medical research may be a benefit to society, that benefit is often a lesser concern to researchers working for corporations or universities, he said. He sees implementing an open exchange among researchers as having limited use with real implementation problems.

What’s Out There

Open source is just starting to get going in the medical field. A majority of the software tools fall within the boundaries of proprietary software. This often does not encourage collaborative goals. Today, however, the medical field is more willing to collaborate, according to two visionaries working on an open source collaborative software project for medical experts.

“When we show our model, [researchers] embrace it. It’s taken a group think approach in a positive way for open source development in the medical field,” Lori Williams-Peters, corporate development officer of the Collaborative Software Initiative (CSI), told LinuxInsider.

Within the software industry, a race may be starting to see who can roll out medical research collaborative tools faster. Other than massive research databases maintained by organizations that run open source solutions, actual open source projects for medical collaboration pale compared to commercial products.

“A combination of two things is driving the open source movement in the medical field. One is a growing interest in research collaboration. The other is [that] a level of software sophistication to enhance medical collaboration is not there yet,” Stuart Cohen, CEO of CSI, told LinuxInsider.

His company is starting to see proprietary software companies offering collaborative features. But they are doing it one step at a time, said Cohen.

Some Choices

One of the major open source products for medical researchers is Eclipse, an open platform developed by the Eclipse community. This community’s projects are focused on building an open development platform comprised of extensible frameworks, tools and runtimes for building, deploying and managing software across the lifecycle.

Much of the support for its ecosystem comes from major technology vendors, innovative startups, universities, research institutions and individual researchers. Eclipse uses the Eclipse Public License (EPL), a commercial-friendly license that allows organizations to include Eclipse software in their commercial products. That license asks those who create derivative works to contribute the code back to the community.

Another big player is Marvin, a medical research application framework based on open source software. It fosters rapid application development in the field of biomedical and clinical research. Marvin applications consist of modules that can be plugged together in order to provide the functionality required for a specific experimental scenario. Application modules work on a common patient database that is used to store and organize medical data as well as derived data.

An older application known as the CMISS (Continuum Mechanics, Image analysis Signal processing System) software package, is used in biological research areas for multiscale computational biology and visualization. Its modules for field storage, 3-D graphics, mathematical field operators and image processing are released under an open source license.

Community Health Sharing

Perhaps one of the most visible and successful new open source projects for medical collaboration will be released next month by CSI. The company has been working with the Utah Department of Health to meet federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) standards for infectious disease tracking and reporting.

That project led to the development of a community sourcing software model that is thrusting open source development deeper into vertical markets. The software product, Trisano, will bring together medical experts to work on collaborative software at a fraction of the cost of commercial development, according to Cohen.

Trisano is available in two versions — enterprise and community. Both versions are based on the standard open source model. The enterprise version includes access to more regional testing and comes with support beyond the community level.

CSI will officially announce the release of Trisano next month, said Williams-Peters. The name is based on the “tri” to represent medical triage, the cooperation among local, state and federal health officials, and the Spanish word “sano” meaning health.

1 Comment

  • I’ve never liked this competition thing anyway…"Haven’t you heard – the evolution’s over!"

    And we are not animals any more; we’re humans, and we should start behaving like ones – humane!

    Yes, maybe (just maybe) the development of the civilization wouldn’t have been that fast (too fast perhaps), but wouldn’t have been so stressfull either [without competition].

    Imagine inventing things out of pure curiosity (and not for mere reward) and through friendly communication with other humans in the society – now, that’s what I call humane!

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