Sept 16, 2004
| We hear ad nauseam about the challenges of coping with the deluge of data swamping the bio-IT arena, and translating those data into information and knowledge. It's somewhat reassuring, then, to note that two of the greatest intellects of the 20th century spent decades grappling with the thorny problem of information.
Take the brilliant Cambridge University cosmologist Stephen Hawking, best-selling author of A Brief History of Time. At a summer conference on gravitation and relativity in Dublin, Hawking, communicating via a computer because of his affliction with Lou Gehrig's disease, reversed a position he has held for close to 30 years, concluding that black holes do not consume information but eventually disintegrate and discharge matter and information. Hawking believes that energy and "information" consumed by black holes is eventually returned to the universe, albeit in "mangled form."
Hawking's surprising admission settled a wager he had made with Caltech physicist John Preskill. The price was a copy of the Total Baseball encyclopedia — because information can be retrieved from an encyclopedia at any time. Hawking joked, "I offered him an encyclopedia of cricket as an alternative, but John wouldn't be persuaded of the superiority of cricket." Another slight drawback of his new calculation, Hawking concluded, is that "if information is preserved, there is no possibility of using black holes to travel to other universes."
Another titan of 20th-century science, Francis Crick, passed away in July. Crick's celebrated discovery of the double helix with James Watson in 1953 immediately suggested a mechanism for the transmission of biological information from generation to generation. Crick defined molecular biology's "central dogma" — the irreversible flow of information from DNA to protein — and helped crack the genetic code.
In 1976, Crick sensibly left the United Kingdom for the sunny shores of Southern California and the Salk Institute, turning his vast intellect to the mysteries of the brain and theories of consciousness. "I decided it was probably better not to do experiments," he once said, wisely sticking to theory. Crick argued that dreams are tantamount to "cerebral housecleaning," helping the memory to store information more efficiently. In other words, he said, "we dream in order to forget."
The problem in the research arena is often how to extract information from data. IBM is spelling out its philosophy of information-based medicine — the application of IT to integrate clinical information, including patient records and family and medical histories, with genomic data. Big Blue's new Clinical Genomics Solution aims to help physicians and medical researchers "bridge the gap between clinical research and patient care" by offering "services and technology to identify the molecular mechanisms of disease and ultimately develop more personalized medicine."
But elsewhere in the clinical realm, the problem is not how to extract information from medical histories, but from the companies themselves. Medical organizations, journal editors, and politicians are lobbying for a public registry of clinical trial data of both government- and industry-sponsored trials. (The NCBI repository at ClinicalTrials.gov appears to be the most logical choice.) However, this requires federal legislation and mechanisms to ensure the validity of the submitted information, so it will not happen overnight.
"We have entered the knowledge age," proclaimed the presidents of Harvard University and MIT, Lawrence Summers and Charles Vest, in a recent newspaper op-ed column. Not so fast. "There is an overestimation of what people think we know," said NIH director Elias Zerhouni at last month's Drug Discovery Technology conference. "I think we need to be humble, and we need to continue to work, not pretending that we have made all the basic science advances that we need to make ... Something is missing in the equation, and that something is knowledge."